Having put another regular season to bed, the Los Angeles Lakers join in what is becoming a traditional prayer: Thank heavens, that's over!

Even though you're charged real (big) prices to attend, the NBA's dirty secret, which the Lakers have dedicated themselves to exposing, is that its season is a simple qualification that the actual contenders -- this season, the Lakers and Sacramento Kings -- can't mess up if they try. And they did try -- the Lakers were 11-19 on Christmas and did not get over .500 until the day before the all-star break.

Not that the season is meaningless, affording a few good teams -- San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks -- a chance to become actual contenders. For everyone else -- the entire East -- it's just a way to make a living while dreaming of catching lightning in a bottle.

It's not that lightning is never bottled, but it doesn't happen often.

In 1969, the Celtics rose from No. 4 in a seven-team East, went on the road all through the playoffs and won Bill Russell's last title in a Game 7 in the Los Angeles Forum, under the balloons Jack Kent Cooke had penned up for the Lakers' celebration.

In 1995, the defending champion Houston Rockets, who had fallen to No. 6, dodged elimination in five games, three of them on the road, and triumphed in Coach Rudy Tomjanovich's "never underestimate the heart of a champion" spring.

In 1999, the Knicks, No. 8 in the East, won three series on the road to reach the NBA Finals, before the Spurs squashed them.

So, three teams have done what the No. 5 Lakers must; thus no one can say it's without precedent.

As Coach Phil Jackson understands by now, the Lakers are different. At this point, they're either the mightiest fifth-seeded team in NBA history, or have just staged one of the worst title defenses in NBA history, or both.

It's not a good idea to write off a team with the game's mightiest tandem. On the other hand, they were close enough to the blade last season when seeded third.

Many are curious to see how many times Robert Horry can camp out on the arc on the last possession, with everyone else under the basket beating the stuffing out of each other only to see the rebound go rolling out to Horry who picks it up and hits the winning shot, as he did against the Kings in last spring's pivotal Game 4 and again here this season against the Pacers.

Once was a goose-bump moment in Lakerdom. Twice was way off the charts. Expecting a third, of course, would be pushing it, but then, that's what the Lakers do.

This makes three consecutive title defenses and three seasons they've punted, in ever more casual fashion. The last dynasts, the Chicago Bulls, were seeded Nos. 1, 2, 1, 1 in four defenses with Michael Jordan. The Lakers have been seeded 2, 3, 5 in their three.

Note the downward trend, suggesting an increasingly dysfunctional kind of powerhouse, or, put another way, this may be paradise but there's a storm front moving in.

For better (in spring), or worse (the rest of the time), the Lakers reflect the virtues and flaws of their leaders, Shaquille O'Neal and Kobe Bryant.

The big problem is, it's harder and harder for O'Neal to get excited these days, especially now that he needs the first four months of the season just to get in shape.

In the meantime, his eyes are everywhere but on the prize.

His favorite nickname, MDE, for Most Dominant Ever, isn't a brag but a fact in a league that regards him with reverence, or awe. Not getting that, he still goes about collecting incidents of "disrespect," as when he yelled at two low-level employees for putting on a video tribute to Michael Jordan, when Shaq's 20,000th point had gone virtually uncommemorated.

The Lakers were waiting to get the ball back from Sacramento, where it was presumably being dusted for fingerprints in an attempt to find the vandal who desecrated it. This was, of course, rude by any standard of behavior . . . except that of the Laker-King rivalry, in which it was just what Shaq might have expected, after he'd sneered at the Kings as "Queens."

For his part, Bryant brims over with energy and ambition, making the role he has to play hard for him, resulting in experiments along the way, as when he barely bothers to shoot in first halves, a development Jackson recently called "astounding."

Jackson, who gets rapped for sleeping while Lakerdom molders, has to content himself with coaching the 10 other guys, or as Brian Shaw recently called them, "Us peons."

Confronting the Big Two, and especially the Big One, means risking a blowup, like O'Neal's snit in the middle of last season's Spur series, which Jackson chooses to defer until the spring, tra la.

The popular myth is that the Lakers chill through the season, waiting to throw a switch in the playoffs.

The truth is, 10 of them go batty, while they hear their contributions dismissed and their names in trade rumors, as they wait for their two stars to come into alignment, as they sort of have this month.

"It was difficult at times to see this part of the season and feel confident in it," Rick Fox said. "We rode the past a lot and our memory, the fact that a lot of us in here have been through that together and that it's still within us as a group to get back to that type of effort. . . .

"We all look better when our superstars are playing at a high level. Mr. O'Neal, in particular, he gets excited at this time of year. He plays at a different level. But as for the rest of us, we don't have that luxury."

Actually, none of them has that luxury anymore, although that's still heresy in Lakerdom.

Even last season, when they needed Horry's miracle to come back in Game 4, after the Kings had gone up 20 points on them, in their own arena, in the first quarter, the general notion was that the Lakers still were the best team.

That's arguable now. The Kings and Spurs are deeper, play better defense and have more momentum. The Timberwolves may not be better than the Lakers but are a lot of work for a first-round date.

Nor is Minneapolis the Lakers' dream site. They figure to be on the road as long as they last in the West, exacting a toll of its own.

"Last time I looked, they hold the trophy," Dallas Coach Don Nelson said. "Somebody's got to knock them out to get it from them and they're going to be a great, worthy opponent in the playoffs, no matter who they play.

"Phil's got the right attitude. Doesn't really matter at this point to him, he's going to play whoever's there and they're going to give everybody a great series. They're going to be ready to play up to their max.

"But it's very hard -- and I played on a lot of championship teams in Boston -- it was very hard not to have any home-court advantage going through the playoffs. You're always under the gun, always having to play on the road early and knowing the pressure that you've got to win there and not lose at home.

"They've never been in that situation before. That'll be different for them and that could catch them. You've got to be really good to not have any home-court advantage and win the world title. I mean, you really have played at a different level."

On the contrary, the Lakers rarely have played like the Lakers this season.

Their defense, which ranked ninth in last season's less-than-inspirational effort, dropped all the way to 21st this season. Last Sunday in Portland, on a five-game winning streak, hoping to win out and stay home for one series, they didn't even contest shots off the high pick-and-roll opponents love to run against them, knowing O'Neal won't come out.

It may not be about the Lakers anymore. It certainly hasn't been to this point.

As insistent as they are that they can right it, their world is upside down. Last week's game against Sacramento meant nothing to the Kings, who had locked up the No. 2 seeding, but something to the Lakers, who were still hoping to move up while sending their arch rivals a message.

Upon receipt of the message, a 117-104 Laker victory, the Kings pooh-poohed it, as the Lakers used to when the Kings smote them in otherwise meaningless late-season games in Arco Arena.

Noted Chris Webber: "They're going to have to play that way in the playoffs to get out of the first round."

For Devean George, left, Kobe Bryant and all the Lakers, each title defense seems to get a little tougher. As a No. 5 seed, they may not have home-court advantage in any series.