In search of their third straight NBA championship, the Miami Heat certainly have an easier road to travel than, say, any team in the Western Conference.
Miami and Indiana own the East and, it seems, only divine intervention will prevent the Heat and Pacers from once again reaching the conference finals.
Miami prevailed in a sensational seven-game series last year, setting up another riveting seven games against Western Conference champion San Antonio in the NBA Finals.
The Jazz get their first look at the Heat this season Monday night at American Airlines Arena.
Utah probably won’t like what it sees.
Miami is 17-6 so far, albeit in the horrendously top-heavy Eastern Conference, where only two teams are over .500. By contrast, there are 10 teams with winning records in the West.
“The East,” says Jazz forward Marvin Williams, “is a little different.”
Said Jazz general manager Dennis Lindsey, “Over time, things usually even out. But it does seem to be a little unique this year.”
In 2008, Williams played in Atlanta and the Hawks reached the playoffs for the first time in his career. They were the No. 8 seed with a 37-45 record. In the West, Denver needed a record of 50-32 to secure the eighth seed.
“That’s the only time I remember this much of a difference” between the two conferences, Williams said.
Teammate John Lucas has noticed the disparity, too.
“In the West, it’s like you have to win every game just to get that eighth spot and make the playoffs,” he said. “The East, I don’t know. The East is the East, I guess.”
Of course, the Heat aren’t to blame for the downtrodden neighborhood in which they toil.
Led by LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, Miami remains one of the best teams in the NBA — East or West.
Along with San Antonio, the Heat are the only team that ranks in the top 10 in scoring (103.1) and scoring defense (96.1).
Eleven of the top 12 scoring teams in the NBA are from the Western Conference.
The exception: Miami.
“The East is more of a grind,” Lucas said. “The East is more about big men — pounding the ball inside. It’s about the half-court. It’s about defense. The West is more fast-placed. It’s up-and-down and go.”
The Heat’s advantage in the Eastern Conference?
“They are a fast-paced team,” Lucas said, “but they can also grind it when they have to. ... What Miami does, basically, is create mismatches everywhere.”
Lindsey praises coach Erik Spoelstra for implementing a system featuring small lineups without dominating post play that still makes it difficult for opponents to score.
“That’s a real challenge,” Lindsey said. “When you play small, your offensive efficiency can go up because of your skill-level and your spacing. But what they’ve been able to do is a credit to Erik and his staff and the buy-in from their players.”
James remains the Heat’s leader.
He averages 25 points a game. That would be his lowest scoring average since his rookie season of 2003-04. He’s also averaging 35.6 minutes, which would be a career-low. But everything the Heat does revolves around the four-time Most Valuable Player.
“He’s the head of the snake,” said Williams. “He puts them in position to win every night. But the supporting cast is very good, too, and they are very well-coached.”
Said Lucas: “It’s still early. A lot can happen. But right now the only team in the East that can match up with them is Indiana.”
Jazz at Heat
P At American Airlines Arena
Tipoff • 5:30 p.m. MST
TV • ROOT Sports
Radio • 1280 AM, 1600 AM, 97.5 FM
Records • Jazz, 6-20; Heat, 17-6
Season series • First game
Last meeting • Jazz, 104-97 (Jan. 14, 2013)
About the Jazz • They are 5-6 in their last 11 games. ... They are 3-9 against the East. ... When they fail to score 100 points, they are 1-17. ... In the last three games, G Trey Burke averages 13.6 points and eight assists. He committed three turnovers in 90 minutes. ... As a team, they shoot 74.9 percent from the free-throw line.
About the Heat • They are 3-3 in their last six games. ... They are 4-0 against the West with wins over the Clippers (102-97), Dallas (110-104), Phoenix (107-92) and Minnesota (103-82). ... They have made at least one 3-point shot in 131 straight games. ... Their top scorers are F LeBron James (25.0) and G Dwyane Wade (18.8).