With both Anthony Davis and LeBron James unavailable due to injuries more often than not this year, Western Conference hopefuls were saved the crucial step of summoning the courage to tug on Superman's cape this season. Instead the cape remained tucked neatly away in a closet next to the most recent Larry O'Brien trophy. Phoenix, Utah, Denver and the crosstown Clippers didn't have to muster bravery to poke the mighty bear as the Lakers remained in hibernation until the postseason.
It was nice while it lasted. Because the reigning champs have awoken, rubbed the sleep out of their eyes, and trained them on another championship. Davis and James have claws out and teeth sharp, hungry for more. They are still 10 wins from the Finals but it's feeling more and more like thoughts and prayers time because all is not quiet on the Western front.
The Lakers dismantled the Suns for a second consecutive time on Thursday night, showing no mercy to a team without a complete Chris Paul. A team that a few days ago had lofty aspirations and a clear path to realizing them. It was an exercise in physical domination as L.A. captured a 51-35 rebounding advantage and strolled to the line for 30 free-throw attempts.
Down 19 points with less than eight minutes remaining, Jae Crowder reached his breaking point and decided it prudent to exert some sort of tough-guy energy toward James. It went poorly. The only thing Crowder instigated with his Raja Bell/Ron Artest impersonation was embarrassment for himself as James laughed off the minor annoyance and shook off the would-be defender for a highlight-reel reverse layup.
Crowder's attempt at gamesmanship was the last-ditch effort of a player and a team out of ideas and groping in desperation. It's the realization that only the Lakers can beat the Lakers. That only James can stop himself. It was the tug on Superman's cape. The poking of the bear. And it ended predictably.
For one simple reason. He's LeBron James and Jae Crowder is Jae freaking Crowder. That's Anthony Davis and Mikal Bridges is Mikal Bridges.
This NBA season is a canary in a coal mine. Load management and regular-season indifference rely on the crux of the ends justifying the means. The hypothesis is this: only the playoffs matter. And nothing matters more than putting the most talented team on the floor come elimination time. The experiment is playing out from Brooklyn to the Pacific.
We only have partial findings. Yet it seems as though the data is moving in one direction. Analysts can talk until they're blue in the face about what they've seen on the court all year, but it's extremely likely that none of it matters when Davis and James play together, fully healthy. Or when Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, and James Harden inhabit the same offensive possession.
That may not be good for basketball. It may just be where we're at.
One could almost see the gears turning in Crowder's head. Perhaps if I can just get into LeBron's head, if I can distract Goliath enough, this slingshot Frank Kaminsky is carrying could be enough.
It wasn't. It won't be. Because he's LeBron James. Because that's Anthony Davis. Because those are the defending champions, whole for the first time at the right time. It's fait accompli for Phoenix no matter how ferociously they look for Kryptonite. And it may just be a peek into the next month or so of playoff basketball.