Two (or sometimes 3) games in to the NBA Playoffs, the Los Angeles Lakers are looking pretty darn good. Behind a dominant Game 1 display, and a Game 2 victory that came despite the team not bothering to shift into high gear, the Lakers certainly look like a team primed for a deep playoff run. They are not alone. The San Antonio Spurs are happily avoiding a repeat upset by laying waste to the poor Utah Jazz. The New York Knicks look completely overmatched against the Miami Heat. The OKC Thunder have had a little more stress, but they too are up 2-0 over the defending champs. And Indiana has quickly rectified their Game 1 setback by going up 2-1 with resounding victories. And only one of the most miraculous comebacks in NBA history has prevented the Clippers from being down 2-0, with the Grizzlies up big in both contests (and having collapsed in one). Aside from Chicago's struggles in a post-Rose world, and the interesting match ups in the 4-5 slot in both conferences, the first round of the NBA playoffs looks pretty devoid of interest.
From here, the Lakers can go one of two routes. They can assert their dominance over a Denver roster that is too small to handle them, and easily win this series in four or five games. Or they can half-ass their way through a contest or two, and take more time in the first round. A lazier path could result in a 5 (with the single defeat being by 15+ points), six, or even seven game series. Hell, it could even result in defeat, though that remains exceedingly unlikely. Which Lakers team will show up in Denver? The answer remains unknown. It also remains irrelevant.
There is only one thing you need to know about the Lakers, or about any team, when it comes to the playoffs. The only, only, ONLY thing that matters is survival. Now how you look. Not how easily or quickly you dispatch your opponent. The only thing that matters is that you've won more games than your opponent when the series is deemed complete. That's it.
Last year, some used hindsight to retroactively determine that the Lakers were in trouble from the beginning of the postseason. The tell-tale signs of their eventual annihilation at the hands of the Dallas Mavericks were there as the Lakers had trouble with a New Orleans Hornets team that looked severely over-matched on paper. But that just doesn't fit the recent mold. Over the past four years, there have been teams that have struggled all the way to an NBA title, and many other teams that looked unbeatable right up until the moment they were beaten.
Want proof? Take the Lakers for example. Removing last year from the equation, how would you rank the three Lakers teams that either won titles or went to the NBA Finals? You might think the Lakers first title was the best team, waxing the Orlando Magic en route to an easy trophy. The 2nd title team would have to come next, taking care of business against the Boston Celtics, but taking their sweet time doing it. And obviously the 2008 team would have to be last, since they couldn't quite finish the deal.
And how did those three teams look in getting to the Finals? Their end success seems to be inverse to their performance along the way. The 2008 team was dominant en route to the finals, losing just three games prior to falling to the Celtics in six. The 2010 team struggled with the OKC Thunder in the first round, but easily took care of the Jazz in the 2nd round before needing another six games against the Suns - that's a 12-4 record over the first three rounds for those of you keeping score at home. The 2009 version lost six times en route to the finals, including an embarrassing seven game series against a Yao Ming-less Houston Rockets team.
Or you can look around the league to all the other non Lakers squads. The Celtics of 2008 looked terrible in the early rounds prior to winning the championship. Losing 3, 3, 2 and 2 games in their four playoff series, they nearly played the maximum number of games possible, and lost less in the later rounds than they did early on against theoretically weaker opponents. Or look at the litany of teams that have steamrolled through their opponents in early rounds before losing to teams that had a tougher route. In 2010, Orlando swept through the first two rounds before getting beaten by the Celtics. In 2009, LeBron James' Cavs did the same, and the Nuggets lost just two games in the first two rounds before meeting their match.
In fact, in three of the last four years, the two teams which lost in the Conference Finals performed better than the teams that defeated them (in terms of losses in previous rounds). None of this is to say that teams that struggle in the early rounds somehow have an advantage later on. The past two NBA champions (Dallas and LA 2010) lost just three and four games respectively en route to the Finals. The two champions before them (LA 2009 and Boston) lost six and eight. There is no one set path, people. A team's performance in one round of the playoffs carries no weight whatsoever on how that same team will look in the next round. The playoffs are about three things: Match-ups, getting hot (or avoiding going cold) at the right time, and avoiding the death knell of poorly timed injuries.
So, if the Lakers do follow through and take care of business in Denver, ending this series in playoff order, be happy, but do not think this guarantees the Lakers are ready to make a deep postseason run. And if the Lakers regress, or give games away, and end up taking close to the full allotment of games to move on, don't get down on their effort. There is only one prize, for one team, at the end of this long journey called the NBA Playoffs, and this contest isn't a beauty pageant. As long as the Lakers are victorious when this series is finished, they will have done the only job that matters.