Time to see what they're really made of

Before we proceed to the best part of the NBA, let's pause to thank the Miami Heat for making the regular season matter again.

In recent years, the Lakers and Celtics have done their best to render the whole 82-game schedule meaningless, saving their efforts for when they felt it was worthwhile. The Heat never had that luxury because we didn't let them.

They brought it on themselves with every televised, self-indulgent exploit over the summer, but we held them accountable. We turned every game into a referendum. We were ready to fire Erik Spoelstra by Thanksgiving, prepared to grant the Heat a spot in the NBA Finals right after Christmas, and then we scrutinized every late-game play for a week in March while spending off days speculating about who did or didn't cry in the Heat locker room.

It's exactly what the NBA needed. If the top teams had stopped caring about the regular season, why should the fans or media? The dirty secret the NBA wants you to forget from the last lockout was that life without regular-season basketball wasn't so bad and the immediate urgency that came in the shortened 50-game season was pretty cool. The NBA would be better off going to a 50- or 60-game season on a permanent basis, in addition to contracting two to four teams, but it will never happen because the owners and players don't want to give up the revenue.

So we're stuck with the interminable 82, played by mostly uncaring participants. The Lakers are the leading practitioners. There's no excuse for them losing 25 games this season, with most of the losses coming from lack of intensity. The Spurs give their players a precautionary sit-down whenever they feel the need. And the Celtics have gone from the every-minute-every-game intensity of Kevin Garnett's first season in Boston to realizing that championships aren't won in April, which explains why Von Wafer was in position to affect the outcome of a game when playoff seeding still hung in the balance.

The best teams and players are the ones that pace themselves the best, who have taken steps along the way to get through this moment.

Pacing is a tactic Blake Griffin came to understand and appreciate by the end of his monster rookie season.

"I watch guys really take over games in the fourth quarter," Griffin said. "It's like that's when they come out strong. I notice right out of the gate, I'm just taking off full speed and sometimes I didn't have a lot left in the tank. I can definitely learn from that."

Yes, the guy who often had two upload-worthy highlights by the first timeout says he'll take it slower at the start next season. That's the reality of the league. The human mentality just won't allow for going 82 games at full intensity without letups somewhere along the way.

"I think it happens," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "Especially in L.A.'s case, I think it's totally understandable. I've always said, people who have won championships understand how damn hard it is. And because it's so damn hard and you know what's ahead of you, sometimes you can lighten up on yourself down the stretch. It's a natural reaction."

The best thing about the arrival of the playoffs is that there can be no more excuses or qualifying remarks. No assurances of "it will be different in the playoffs." These are the playoffs. No need to postpone anything.

The postseason begins as wide open as I've ever seen. There is an abundance of contenders -- and each carries legitimate reasons to doubt its ability to log the 16 victories needed to capture the championship. All the more reason to watch.

You can't go strictly by the seedings. That's one of the ways the NBA regular season is wasteful and even deceptive. Since the 2001 playoffs, the top seeds from both conferences have met in the NBA Finals only once: Lakers-Celtics in 2008.

This season, the Spurs have the best record in the Western Conference and not many people are picking them to even get out of the second round. Despite the championship pedigree of their three stars, there are doubts about the Spurs' ability to keep up with the younger teams in the West and to stay healthy throughout the postseason.

Dallas has a better defense, but does it have that postseason fortitude? Who's going to get the inside points?

Are the Thunder, who haven't won a playoff road game since the franchise moved to Oklahoma City, ready to do so beginning with the second round?

In the East, this group of Bulls has never won a playoff series. It's a huge leap to go from first-round exits to reaching the Finals. Rare, but it happens, with 2008 again serving as the most recent example.

The Celtics spent the first half of the season serving as a showcase of offensive efficiency, but they've been wayward since trading Kendrick Perkins.

The Magic radically transformed their roster and now are dependent, in part, on Gilbert Arenas' knees.

Will the Heat's problems in the half-court sets resurface in the late stages of playoff games?

Can the new-look Knicks come together in time? Can they defend at a championship level?

Now that an MRI showed there is not serious damage to Andrew Bynum's right knee, the question hanging over everything is whether the Lakers can play like champions or whether they will be the enigmatic group that blew a 20-point lead in the final quarter of the final game of the regular season and needed overtime to beat the Kings.

I've always said teams need only to show flashes of greatness during the regular season. Just put it out there for a while; they can always get back to it later. The Lakers took their time to reach that place, then stayed for a while in winning 17 of 18 games after the All-Star break.

Their perimeter defense is weak. They're not as deep as they were thought to be at the start of the season. But they're too dangerous to discount.

They can't use the crutch of not caring anymore. A couple of listless nights in the next few weeks and they'll be at home, regretting the three-peat opportunity that will never come this group's way again.

There's nothing fluky about the NBA playoffs. Ordinarily you can make your choices in full confidence that the better team will prevail.

But we haven't seen the current crop of Bulls or Heat or so many others under the crucible of the playoffs. In that sense, they're just as questionable as some of the surprising teams that scrapped their way into the postseason.

If their own coaches can't be sure of what their teams will do, how can you know what to expect?

"I don't know," said Lionel Hollins, the coach of the eighth-seeded Memphis Grizzlies. "I think that they're going to get their eyes opened in the intensity level, the effort level, the second and third and fourth effort. All of the stuff that I preach during the regular season, it's going to be magnified in the playoffs. There are some guys that are going to rise up to the level, and some guys are going to sink."

That's the essence of the playoffs.

For all of his accolades and advertisements, his MVP awards and his jersey sales, LeBron James enters this postseason with just as much to prove as playoff newcomer Danny Granger.

I think this will be a time for the Bulls and Derrick Rose to break through, and the Lakers and Kobe Bryant to hang on, with the Lakers' experience ultimately prevailing in the Finals.

It would be the toughest accomplishment of their three championships. And the ultimate reflection on the meaninglessness of the regular season.