For Heat, top-heavy East is a puzzle

ORLANDO -- The lanes have been reversed on the Florida turnpike.

A series that the Orlando Magic have dominated in recent years has shifted back into the hands of the Miami Heat. No, Southeast Division supremacy wasn't decided with the Heat's 104-100 victory against the Magic at the Amway Center on Thursday night.

There are still plenty of games and the entire postseason to play out. But it became abundantly clear that this budding -- and, at times, bitter -- rivalry is no longer up for grabs. The Heat erased that debate with their dominant performance through three quarters, despite the fact they nearly imploded down the stretch.

The only thing Miami did wrong was ruin a perfectly good rout by almost squandering a 20-point lead with six minutes left. It added suspense to what should have been a statement victory. Still, it spoke volumes about how things stack up atop the Eastern Conference standings.

According to Magic coach Stan Van Gundy, there's clearly a pecking order.

“Right now, Boston and Miami have separated themselves, and Chicago has a pretty significant advantage on us, and Atlanta and New York is a little bit behind that,” Van Gundy said. “So there is a little separation. I think that we can get there in 10 weeks, I really do. But you can't say that, right now, we're right there with those teams.”

What Thursday's result showed was how important jockeying for playoff position will be over the season's stretch run. It revealed how vital it might be for certain teams to avoid others -- even if it means falling a spot or two in the standings to land a more preferable playoff matchup.

As things now stand, there's a round-robin like routine among the top five teams in the East. Consider yourself warned, because it's about to get dizzy. With impressive wins in two of three matchups with their intrastate rival, the Heat have the Magic's number. Yet Miami can't beat Boston.

The Celtics have dominated the Heat in two meetings this season, but have struggled in their two-game split against the Magic. Atlanta can't do a thing with Boston, but has closed the gap on Orlando. Meanwhile, the Bulls are the only team among the top six in the East with victories this season against the Celtics, Heat and Magic.

Boston (37-11), Miami (35-14), Chicago (34-14), Atlanta (31-18) and Orlando (31-19) are separated by a total of seven games. In games played among the East's elite, Boston is an impressive 7-2 while Chicago is 3-3, Atlanta is 3-4, Orlando is 4-6 and Miami is 3-5.

“This is as competitive as the conference has been, where there are several teams that feel that if they can get their game together, they can probably advance,” Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said after Thursday's game. “I don't remember a year when this many teams in the East -- I've seen it sometimes in the West -- where there are a lot of teams right there in the fight. But teams over here are building playoff habits. Boston's got a playoff defense. Chicago's got a playoff defense. We do. Orlando does. Atlanta has proved they can be a very good defensive team.”

Spoelstra said health will be the most important factor leading into the playoffs. One twisted ankle, tweaked knee or sprained shoulder can easily turn an NBA Finals contender into first-round fodder. What makes the race in the East even more intriguing is that several teams have yet to be whole this season, and are just now starting to get close to full strength.

“It's going to be all about who's going into the playoffs with a good confidence and rhythm,” Spoelstra said. “We have confidence right now, because we feel like we're almost complete. But we've got 10 weeks left to try to put it all together.”

The Heat aren't alone with that dilemma.

In Boston, Kendrick Perkins just returned to the lineup and Delonte West is due back soon. In Miami, Mike Miller is gradually regaining his rhythm after recently returning from thumb surgery, while Udonis Haslem continues to target a late March or early April comeback from foot surgery. In Chicago, Derrick Rose is close to playing with Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah for the first time in months.

So things in the East will likely only grow tighter.

“There's not one clear cut team that's better than the other,” Heat forward LeBron James said. “I think Boston is on top for a reason. They've proven it and they're playing some great basketball. But when you look at one through four, us, Orlando, Chicago, Atlanta and Boston -- you can't take Orlando out of it even though they're not in the top four. It's a lot of competition in the Eastern Conference and it's going to be sweet to see how things shape up.”

For now, the Heat can look beyond the Florida Turnpike for their biggest threats in the East. Those lay waiting in Chicago and Boston.

It's becoming more and more obvious that Miami won't get tripped -- or tricked -- by the Magic.