What dream season was that again?
Amid the gnashing of teeth/jubilation at Miami's woes, the NBA's most eagerly-awaited season ever is wandering off script.
Take the ballyhooed Christmas Heat-Lakers game, with tickets offered online for as much as $27,000. . . .
If they played today, it would be the No. 4 team in the East vs. the No. 4 team in the West.
So much for the Finals Preview angle.
Fortunately for the NBA, as the Heat season turns into Animal House on Steroids, the league doesn't need Miami in the Finals.
On the other hand, no one was expecting to lose the L-L-L-Lakers, too.
Last week brought the Lakers' running their losing streak to four in the West and, of course, more signs the apocalypse was near in the East.
Miami Coach Erik Spoelstra reportedly was in trouble . . . with LeBron James reportedly the source of those reports.
Then came the dreaded return to Cleveland, where James, Spoelstra or perhaps all of them faced annihilation.
Hyperventilating about Spoelstra's job being on the line, Josh Elliott of ESPN's "SportsCenter" asked:
"Is it possible this one game and the outcome will determine, well, really, what the players in that Miami locker room have to say about their coach?"
"Let's face it," replied NBA expert Chris Broussard, "they haven't improved since opening night in Boston."
And it's been a month!
Heat players were so unnerved about the expected hostile environment, they were happy to play the night before, so they wouldn't get to their hotel until 3 a.m.
"You just feel safer," ESPN's Rachel Nichols said Chris Bosh told her. "It gives people with malintent on their mind less time. We can just get in, play our game and get out."
Whatever "malintent" is, and it didn't sound good, that was just what happened.
Like Caesar in Gaul, James came, saw, conquered and got the heck out of Dodge, making it their biggest hype yet.
The high point was TNT's Charles Barkley imitating James' chalk toss beforehand, announcing, "LeBron? Chuck. I dare you!"
James did the chalk toss, ignored the boos — which barely came across on TV — scored 38 and sat out the fourth quarter of the rout.
The usual suspects at ESPN then pronounced it a Turning Point, deftly putting their Spoelstra story to sleep.
If Barkley really is feuding with James, it's the tip of the iceberg as the media splits into pro-LeBron (led by ESPN, which has identified itself with Heat fortunes) and anti-LeBron/ESPN factions.
Credible newsmen like Broussard, who reported Heat players were criticizing Spoelstra, are caught in the crossfire.
Yahoo's Adrian Wojnarowski wrote that James and right-hand man Maverick Carter "planted [the] story and exposed themselves again as jokers of the highest order."
Broussard came back, noting James' people think LeBron was being scapegoated as the source of the story.
Meanwhile, even ESPN people suggested Carter was the source.
Taking it a step further, ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy called it "slander through unidentified sources," noting, "Those sources were very one-sided, obviously pro-LeBron."
Meanwhile, in the West. . . .
It used to be the Lakers who got The Big Treatment, although never as big as what the Heat is getting.
Now they just play, which got hard enough with their losing streak prompting the usual "Time to Panic" headlines.
(Once again providing the rational response to a sportswriting cliche, Van Gundy asked, "Is there ever a good time to panic?")
On the other hand, things have changed.
If Lakerdom is used to expectation shortfalls, their faves used to lock up the West by Christmas.
In two seasons, the Lakers have been out of sole possession of first place for only 34 days.
This season they haven't had it to themselves yet, while playing the NBA version of the Little Sisters of the Poor.
Pau Gasol, who averaged 27 points before having to take injured Theo Ratliff's minutes, is at 14 over the last six games.
In other words, they had better get Andrew Bynum back soon or rethink the decision not to spend $70,000 to bring in a backup for a week — roughly what they make in one game from 27 of their 136 courtside seats.
Jerry Buss may barely remember what a race is after two seasons of West decline, which was expected to continue. . . .
That's something else that hasn't happened, with five teams on pace to win between 56 and 68.
The Lakers, at the low end, won the West with 57 last season but will need more this time.
The Spurs look like the Spurs, but deeper and more athletic.
Tyson Chandler is a huge plus for No. 2 Dallas, as is new Coach Monty Williams for No. 5 New Orleans.
Of course, 'Drew Is Expected Back Soon So What Could Go Wrong?
Oh right, everything that went wrong for three seasons.
Of course, if the contest isn't always won by the biggest and best, it's still the way to bet.
The Lakers have a long way to go, with all Non-Heat/ESPN Nation behind them.