Heat forward LeBron James drives against Celtics forward Paul Pierce during… (Mike Ehrmann / Getty Images )
As the West sinks slowly into its dotage, we turn East to the most ballyhooed second-round series since the rise of modern ballyhoo.
Miami vs. Boston. Nothing in recent NBA history comes close.
In 1968 what remained of the fallen Celtics dynasty came from 3-1 behind to beat defending champion Philadelphia, teaching the NBA an eternal lesson about the need to hammer a stake through the hearts of vampires and Celtics.
The Celtics won Game 7 in Philadelphia's Spectrum as the 76ers' Wilt Chamberlain took two shots from the field in the second half, starting the furor that prompted his trade to the Lakers.
A year later, the Celtics dragged in No. 4 in the seven-team East and beat Wilt's Lakers in Game 7 in the Forum, with the balloons, etc.
Fortunately for Wilt, it was before ESPN so even if his notoriety made LeBron James look like a Boy Scout, it wasn't the same.
If most people can't remember why, this series comes billed as the long-awaited battle between the minions of the devil (Heat) and the Living Embodiment of All the Good Things About the NBA (Celtics).
Well, at least that's how it's billed by Boston fans, pundits and ESPN's Bill Simmons, who's both.
If Simmons' appeal is generational — and I miss by at least three — he's invaluable as a study of the modern . . . uh . . . media . . . with its worship of attitude, however unapologetically jingoistic, self-centered and self-congratulatory.
Preparing either for the NBA version of "Paradise Lost" or a basketball series, Simmons wrote:
"I was looking forward to a Celtics-Heat playoff series for so many reasons, but mainly because it was a battle for everything I ever believed about basketball. Hell, it was the premise of my entire NBA book: that there was more to basketball than just a bunch of individually talented dudes playing together, that the concept of 'team' mattered. . . .
"Miami tried to cheat that structure and my Celtics were going to make them pay. Then the [Kendrick] Perkins trade happened. . . ."
Check me on this:
Didn't Miami's talented dudes, with their spindly, creaky front line, finish No. 6 in defense, and tie Boston at No. 2 in opponents' field-goal percentage?
Wasn't James No. 1 in assists among forwards and Dwyane Wade No. 2 among shooting guards?
Didn't the Celtics cheat the structure, getting Kevin Garnett — who demanded a trade — after Minnesota GM/former Celtics great Kevin McHale took Al Jefferson and more guys who aren't there instead of taking Andrew Bynum and Lamar Odom from the Lakers?
All James did was leave Cleveland — after seven seasons, two more than he had to be there — when he couldn't get anyone to go there.
Of course, he did that dumb TV show, aided by Simmons' employers, announcing he would "take my talents to South Beach" — as a piñata, it turned out.
The furor launched the ratings-shattering 2010-11 season, so even if it was totally undeserved, let's have a big NBA thank-you for LeBron!
The Celtics beat the lowlifes, er, Heat on opening night in Boston and ran over them in Miami two weeks later as Paul Pierce tweeted:
"It was a pleasure taking my talents to South Beach."
Unfortunately, the playoffs were five months off.
Somewhere in there, General Manager Danny Ainge apparently began getting messages from Red Auerbach, who told him to build for the future while getting a backup for Pierce . . . if only with Jeff Green . . . and it was OK to trade Perkins since they had Shaquille O'Neal.
Of course, there's an eternal principle about not relying on 39-year-old 325-pounders.
Shaq, who had been out three weeks, isn't back yet. The words "Kendrick Perkins" are now as painful in New England as "Mariano Rivera."
Happily for the Celtics, Jermaine O'Neal returned to play as well as Shaq in the first round.
Unhappily for the Celtics, that's not the problem.
In year four with Garnett, Pierce and Ray Allen, they revolve around Rajon Rondo, who went from a cocky pain to a dazzling playmaker who lived in the lane, got open shots for his veteran teammates and made the game easy for them.
Rondo's late-season funk was attributed to injuries or the departure of his friend, Perkins.
If only. Teams had also begun dropping off Rondo — as the Lakers' Kobe Bryant had for years — making him shoot over them.
Even the defenseless Knicks jammed Rondo up — for one game, until Chauncey Billups was hurt.
Fortunately for the Celtics, Billups' backup, Toney Douglas, interpreted "back off him" to "get out of his way."
Rondo not only went to the basket at will, he even knocked in a few mid-range jumpers at the end.
If that got him over the hump, the Celtics may still be the Celtics and all may be right with life, in New England, if not in South Florida.
If not, the Red Sox are closing in on .500!