Can't you just feel the passion play about to unfold in the NBA's Consolation Bracket, otherwise known as the Eastern Conference? The defending champion Nets wonder if they're "playoff ready" while the other pretenders keep losing games and gaining ground.
I advocated abolishing the Eastern Conference playoffs a month or so ago and got a number of angry e-mails from readers who thought I shouldn't insult their intelligence. One said it would even deprive of us of a last chance to see Michael Jordan in the postseason. You already missed that one. It was five years ago.
Yes, we're going to have to weather six weeks of numbing "playoff basketball" in the East so that the winner can play John the Baptist's head to the Western Conference's platter. Nothing has changed in the last month to indicate that an Eastern team can do any better than the Nets (four and out) or the Sixers (out in five) did in the last two NBA Finals. It's Hootie vs. Martha and Hootie has on his Western Conference green jacket.
But all that might change if David Stern stepped in and designated the Bulls as the Eastern Conference representative. Jordan's ex-mates have played as well as anyone in the conference this month, especially against the so-called conference elite. Why not? We wouldn't even have to listen to Jerry Krause's baseball scouting stories anymore.
The Bulls finished up with a 4-4 April and two of those defeats were overtime heartbreakers. In the process of this magical, anti-Floydian run, they knocked off the Bucks, Pacers, Nets and Sixers, playoff teams one and all. In those four games, they averaged 110.5 points a game. Isn't that what we all want to see?
Can't you already envision a Bulls-Lakers NBA Finals? Chicago, by the way, has taken three of the last four from L.A., including a definitive whuppin' of the world champs last month at the United Center which came after the Lakers had found their groove.
Still, there'd be the obvious story lines, such as Eddy Curry going against Shaquille O'Neal? Baby Shaq against the real deal? Of Tyson Chandler returning to his native soil and to one of the 346 high schools he attended? (I know he's hurt, but he might be able to go by June.) Of the arrival of Jamal Crawford and the demise of Jay Williams? Of Jalen Rose on Jalen Rose and everything else?
The rest of the hoop world could discover Bill Cartwright, the guy who MJ said should never have the ball late in a close game -- the guy MJ never wanted as a teammate who helped MJ win three rings. He's their coach. It would discover the outrageously talented Crawford, who Krause resolutely refused to trade and now we're starting to see the reason why. My guess is if the Bulls had to drop Crawford or Williams, it'd be the latter, not the former. You'd have a rocking United Center in a major television market to go along with the obvious curiousity factor.
Of course, that's not going to happen because the Bulls finished with a 30-52 record which technically leaves them out of the playoffs, even in the low-budget Eastern Conference. Instead, one of those teams that the Bulls throttled in the last two weeks could well emerge from the flotsam of the next month and a half and be this year's designated lamb for slaughter.
But the Bulls can take comfort in making sure that they had a say in how the whole thing ended up in the dreary conference. No one was coming into their building and leaving without taking a beating. No one was going to clinch at their expense. (OK, it's a lot easier to take those threes when the high water mark is 30 wins. Rick Pitino's Celtics used to be monsters in April, after they were eliminated and actually thought 36 wins was a good season.)
The Sixers were the latest to understand that the Bulls meant business. They went into the United Center on Tuesday night and got trampled, even though Chicago was without Chandler and Donyell Marshall. Afterwards, the ever-gracious Allen Iverson said, "When you lose a game, especially to a team not going into the playoffs, that opens the window to say a lot of negative things about your own team."
Yeah, like, bring on the Bulls.
The Sixers would have clinched homecourt advantage in the first round and been in position to claim the No. 3 seed with a win in Chicago. That was merely the latest in a list of silly setbacks by the teams which claim to represent the power elite in the East. Or is that an oxymoron?
The Celtics became the first beneficiaries. They lost in Orlando last weekend and the Magic temporarily tied them for No. 6. A couple nights later, the Magic lost, in Atlanta of all places, to allow the Celtics to clinch the vaunted No. 6 position by not even playing. The Celtics went into the last week of the season having lost 11 of 18 and saying they felt they were playing well.
Did you notice how the Pistons clinched the top spot? They eked out a win, at home, over the NBDL Cavaliers when Smush Parker missed a dunk at the buzzer. Rick Carlisle should have opened his postgame news conference by announcing he would not seek, nor would he accept, the conference title on such specious grounds.
The Nets were the next ones to dubiously ascend to their division title. They lost at home to New Orleans on Monday and faced the prospect of dropping to No. 3. But the Bulls came through for them and ripped the Sixers, so the Nets back-doored their way into a second consecutive Atlantic Division title.
The only playoff-bound teams in the conference playing with any kind of moxie are the Hornets and Bucks. But neither could end up being one of the top four seeds, which sort of tells you a lot about the top four seeds.
That's the way it has been for the last four years, when Eastern Conference teams have managed a grand total of four victories in the conference finals. Or, to break it down even further, one per Final. That's three shy of what you need to win the series.
There is nothing on the screen right now that suggests this June is going to be any different. The Western Conference team will have the homecourt advantage and will be in playoff overdrive after surviving three tough series. The Eastern Conference survivor will actually think it is playing playoff basketball, until it goes up against a team that has been playing real playoff basketball for six weeks.
You'd like to think it's going to be otherwise. You'd like to think we'd have a chance of seeing a remotely competitive NBA Finals. It's not going to happen. It's going to be another sweep or, perhaps, a 4-1 series with Shaq or CWebb or Tim Duncan hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy in victory. Unless, of course, David Stern finds a way to get the Bulls to the Big Dance one more time.
They might not win. But they'd have a good time and so might the rest of us.
Peter May, who covers the NBA for the Boston Globe, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.