LeBron James and the Heat could face a second-round series against Paul… (Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images )
Once more — even if it's the last time — NBA fans join together in that age-old prayer . . .
Thank heavens that's over!
The season is so long that, even if you remember when the Miami Heat was loathed and feared, you may not have the slightest idea why.
And what a season it was!
TV ratings set new records at ABC, ESPN and TNT. Revenues were at an all-time high, approaching $4 billion . . . as owners and players girded for Apocalypse This Summer.
Not that the Heat had much to do with it, at least at first, quickly falling by the wayside.
At 9-8, ESPN's "Heat Index" folded its daily updates on the team's chances of winning 72 and LeBron James' chances of averaging a triple-double, as their hype was eclipsed by two mere basketball teams, the Celtics and Bulls
The Celtics became the NBA version of a buffalo stampede as Shaquille O'Neal joined Kevin Garnett, Glen Davis and Kendrick Perkins.
The Bulls had presumptive MVP — in his third season — Derrick Rose, new Coach Tom Thibodeau's defense and Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer, if only in 29 games together.
Overcoming their own 9-8 start, they overtook the Heat on March 6, winning in Miami to drop the home team to No. 3, four games behind Boston.
That was the "crybaby game" when Miami Coach Erik Spoelstra's offhand mention of tears made his players a laughingstock. The Knicks' Amare Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony yukked it up. The Lakers' Kobe Bryant said nobly he wouldn't judge, but laughed when asked if he ever cried. The entire league said "There's no crying in basketball!" almost in unison.
Unfortunately, the Heat went back to winning and people turned to other laughingstocks, like the Knicks, falling off a cliff with Melo.
All but unnoticed, only the Bulls had a better record than the Heat after Thanksgiving:
1. Chicago 54-15
2. Miami 50-17
3. San Antonio 48-20
4. Dallas 47-21
5. Oklahoma City 45-22
5. Boston 45-22
7. Lakers 44-23
The regular season notwithstanding (a good name for it), the Lakers remain co-favorites with the Bulls at 5-2 to win the title.
Showing the season's importance in the scheme of things . . . and/or disregarding the evidence of their eyes . . . the Lakers' West rivals spent the final days trying to get out of their way.
Memphis benched Zach Randolph, tanking its last two losses with a tidal wave of a splash, as if dropping the 260-pound Z-Bo off a high board, diving to No. 8 to play the Spurs, instead.
Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich, himself, sat his big three against the Lakers, helping them avoid a drop to No. 4, into San Antonio's bracket.
Unfortunately, the Lakers kept losing, as if tanking to get away from themselves, until that next-to-last game against the Spurs.
Appropriately enough, they took it to the very end, blowing a 20-point fourth-quarter lead Wednesday in Sacramento.
Whether it turns out to be appropriate or not, Bryant's three tied it with 4.8 seconds left and they won in overtime . . . or they'd be opening against the prickly Trail Blazers instead of the overmatched Hornets.
Now for the best-looking postseason in years:
The East's glamour matchups start in the first round with Boston-New York, the winner — the Celtics, unless a lot of threes drop — looking at Miami in the second round.
The West's first round is merely interesting, then, assuming both fading teams revive, the Lakers meeting the Mavericks in the second round.
Suggesting a dawning Age of the East, the Bulls and Heat are young and in as good shape as they're going to be.
For the Bulls that still means Rose shouldering the weight of his non-shooting guards, whom opponents will play off as teams do in the playoffs . . . and Noah, the Franco-American kamikaze, struggling after returning from injury, and hurting himself yet again.
For the Heat, it means the Big Two Plus Chris Bosh have to make do with their minimal supporting cast.
Mike Bibby, waived by Atlanta, now starts ahead of Mario Chalmers at the point (and made 46% of his threes there.)
Carlos Arroyo, who opened as the Heat's starting point guard, was waived and is now a Celtic.
Unfortunately for Miami, its big move to help the front line was Erick Dampier.
Unfortunately for the playoff-tested Lakers, Celtics and Spurs, they have even more issues.
The Celtics finished 11-10 with Nenad Krstic at center in their new gentlemanly lineup as opponents sagged off Rajon Rondo, who still can't shoot and suddenly couldn't drive.
Shaq, who played five minutes after the Perkins trade, is expected back but may not play much against the Knicks, since he'd have to sit on one of the little fellows to stay near him.
After that, he has to stay healthy — at 39, coming off 10 weeks off — or their thundering herd days are over.
The Spurs came out of their swoon with enough time to rest their big guys . . . then lost Manu Ginobili, who hyperextended his right elbow in the regular-season finale.
Meanwhile, the Lakers were becoming the first team to finish on a 17-1 run followed by a 2-5 pratfall, shaking even the living legends.
Dropping his cool and his attitude, Bryant admitted cheerily he has no idea what comes next.
"This team is so weird," he said, laughing.
This is actually a good sign for the Lakers, who usually need a round or even two, as in 2009, to awaken.
Happily for some more than others, they're all starting over.