Giannis Antetokounmpo has seen, and been defeated by, both of the Western Conference’s top contenders. His Milwaukee Bucks hosted the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers last month and lost a tight 113-106 contest, but compared to the Western Conference’s current No. 1 seed, the reigning MVP was not particularly impressed. He has now faced off with the Utah Jazz twice and been throttled on both occasions. The Jazz built 20-point leads in both games and left with double-digit victories in each. That brought Antetokounmpo to a simple conclusion. According to ESPN’s Eric Woodyard, Giannis called the Jazz “the best team in the West.”
“It just looks fun. Like when I watch them play, it looks fun, it looks easy,” Antetokounmpo said. “It looks simple. For sure, they look like us last year, and man, when you’re at that point and you’re playing with that confidence, you’re hard to beat for sure.”
He picked a fitting night to crown Utah. Around 700 miles away, the Lakers didn’t have a particularly easy night, at least not at first. While the Jazz were running the Bucks out of Vivint Arena, the Lakers jogged through an ugly first quarter against the Memphis Grizzlies in which they fell behind 22-2. This was hardly a new phenomenon for the Lakers. Their approach lately has seemingly been to test the limits of their talent by creating bigger deficits to overcome with each passing night.
In fairness, the Lakers have overcome those deficits. They’ve now won seven games in a row, but they’ve been outscored by 41 points across their past five first quarters. Five of the seven opponents they’ve faced during the streak are currently outside of the top-eight in their respective conferences, and the Pistons and Thunder, with a combined record of 17-34, managed to take them to overtime in three consecutive games.
It’s a far cry from the sheer dominance of Utah’s current streak. The Jazz have won 17 of their past 18 games, but only two of those victories were decided by single digits. Neither came down to a single possession, and their lone loss came against a Denver team that shot over 64 percent on 3-pointers. The Jazz are crushing everybody they play.
It’s a consistency the Lakers know well. They’ve now played 27 games this season. At this point a season ago, they were 24-3 with a plus-9 net rating nearly identical to Utah’s current plus-8.8 mark. This year’s group isn’t particularly far off. At 21-6 they’re only half of a game behind the Jazz. They trail them by less than a point in net rating. But the ease Giannis described is lacking at the moment. The Jazz are reveling in their blowouts. The Lakers are scrambling to clean up their own messes.
That’s not exactly uncommon among defending champions. Nine of the previous 14 NBA champions saw their winning percentage decrease in the following season, and three others posted the same win total. Defending a championship is harder than winning one. LeBron James teams are known to nap through portions of regular seasons, and many other older contenders do the same. There is little doubt that the Lakers can kick things up a notch when they need to. This winning streak is proof of that.
But the similarities between the Jazz and last season’s Lakers are striking. Regular-season dominance isn’t necessarily a prerequisite for postseason success, but there are undeniable benefits to developing the right kind of habits early in a season. The 2019-20 Lakers never had to flip a switch. They played championship basketball from opening night through the postseason, and it helped them navigate the unprecedented circumstances the Orlando bubble presented.
The 2021 postseason won’t be quite as fraught, and the Lakers still have championship experience to lean on that the Jazz do not. But the impulse to dismiss Utah based on lacking that experience—and the superstar talent that tends to generate it—ignores the journey that most champions take to find it. Not all regular-season juggernauts are built for the playoffs, but most teams that win in the playoffs build off of the foundations established in the regular season.
The 2019-20 Lakers did that. The 2020-21 Jazz are doing it now. It doesn’t mean that they will be better than the Lakers when it counts. Postseason history’s emphasis on star power suggests that they probably will not. But Giannis has now played both of these teams in their present state. Where they will stand when it counts remains to be seen, but until the Lakers recapture the consistency that helped make them champions last season, Antetokounmpo is right. The Jazz are playing better basketball right now. They’re playing the best basketball in the West.
Courtesy: CBS Sports