A few weeks ago, we had such high hopes for drama in the NBA's Eastern Conference playoffs. And the evidence for some compelling competition was all over the place.
We had begun in Milwaukee, where the trading-deadline arrival of John Salmons somehow had turned the Bucks into one of the league's most dangerous first-round underdogs. Another decent story was building in Charlotte, where Michael Jordan, Larry Brown and the Bobcats were sitting on three victories in four games against the mighty Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Toronto Raptors ... uh, well, how many of us really expected the Raptors to play enough defense to satisfy the playoff police?
Anyway, now that the regular season is on fumes, the Eastern Conference playoff value is starting to plummet. Our disappointment begins in Milwaukee, where Salmons is still cookin', but center Andrew Bogut -- who had transformed into a real monster on both ends of the floor -- was lost when he fell back to earth after a dunk. As it now stands, the Bucks will be the first-round foe of the Atlanta Hawks, a very fine and athletic team that would have had some issues attempting to match up with Bogut.
With one more regular-season showdown between these teams scheduled for Monday, the Bucks and Hawks have split two games thus far. Without Bogut, don't expect much scoreboard equity in the first round.
Things continue going well in Charlotte, well enough that the Bobcats have played their way into the seventh seed and a date with the Orlando Magic. That doesn't seem very interesting because Orlando has won three of the four games these teams have played against each other this season. Sure, Larry Brown has the strategic chops on defense to make things interesting, but not as interesting as a series with Cleveland might have been. See, the Cavaliers lost three of their four games with the Bobcats this season, and a battle between LeBron James and defensive tough guy Gerald Wallace may have been really fun.
OK, so LeBron did shoot 52 percent against Charlotte this season, but Brown would have come up with a nice plan to provide help for Wallace. However, even if the anticipated collision had occurred, the Bobcats now must work with go-to-guy Stephen Jackson (hamstring, ankle, wrist and elbow) at less than 100 percent.
Instead of the Bobcats, Cleveland will be lining up against the Raptors or Chicago Bulls. Now that Salmons no longer works in Chicago, it's hard to imagine the Bulls rallying from a poor season to provide first-round fits like they did against the Boston Celtics a year ago (Thursday's game should matter little). And if the Raptors hang on to the eighth seed despite a facial injury to star forward Chris Bosh and a nose job for Hedo Turkoglu, which is not likely, they'll be facing a team that handled them three times in four games.
Not appointment viewing, by any means.
Our last prospective first-round battle co-stars the Boston Celtics and Miami Heat. Yeah, with Dwyane Wade suiting up for Miami, anything can happen, right? Hey, the Celtics are growing older by the minute, and Kevin Garnett isn't close to the player he was before that nettlesome knee injury.
Keep believing it, Heat fans. In the meantime, we'll remind you that Boston is 3-0 against the Heat this season, and the old guys figure to dial up enough defense to push into Round 2.
With those concerns on the table, let's take a look at what might transpire when the Eastern Conference enters its semifinals. Well, having the Celtics and Hawks check in with the same record makes the matchups a little fluid.
But let's imagine Cleveland opening with Atlanta and that Shaquille O'Neal is able to roam around a bit. With that variable in place, the Hawks will have quite a challenge matching the Cavaliers on the inside. It also should be noted that with one regular-season-ending date between these teams still on the schedule, the Cavs hold a 3-0 edge in the season series.
Right, that doesn't mean the Hawks can't rise up and make it a struggle. It's just unlikely.
In Joe Johnson, Atlanta has someone capable of taking on (not surpassing, mind you) LeBron and making him work at both ends. The Hawks might have had quite a mobility edge at power forward (Josh Smith) earlier this season, but the Cavs were able to secure a deal for Antawn Jamison and J.J. Hickson has continued to grow into a solid pro at that position.
Things could be a lot more prickly if Cleveland meets up with the Celtics. These teams really don't care much for each other, and veteran Paul Pierce will make James play on the defensive end. But the Cavs still have more than enough size on the interior to deal with Kendrick Perkins and the less-orbital KG.
We'd love to make a case for big entertainment surrounding an Orlando-Atlanta series, but the Hawks have lost three of the four games with the Magic this season. The quickness advantage the Hawks enjoy over most teams at most positions on the floor does not come into play against Orlando.
Orlando also is 3-1 against Boston, although Dwight Howard averaged only a dozen points per game in those events. A battle featuring Howard inside against Perkins and KG might be fun, especially after a couple of games have provoked a rise in the physical stakes.
Despite our concerns over the competitive imbalance in the Eastern Conference, you really have to like a potential rematch of Cleveland and Orlando in the finals. The face-off between old and new Superman is worth paying attention to by itself. As fans of drama, let's just hope nothing happens to sidetrack this reunion.
Of course, if we're stuck with anything else, we can always find comfort over in the Western Conference.