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Winderman: This season, to the conference winners go the spoils

Dec 29, 2010, 4:36 PM EST

Miami Heat v Los Angeles Lakers Getty Images

No, this is not the NFL, where regular-season dominance translates into a playoff bye.

But this season, there just might be a similar reward forthcoming in the NBA.

With all due respect to the Bulls and Jazz and others teams perhaps outplaying their expectations to this point, each conference appears to have three prime championship contenders.

In the East, there are the Celtics, Heat and Magic.

In the West, the true championship contenders appear to be the Spurs, Mavericks and, yes, still, Lakers.

And that could make a No. 1 seed particularly meaningful this time around, because it would mean avoiding the dreaded inside passage, first a No. 2 vs. No. 3 conference semifinal and then a likely conference final against the No. 1 overall seed.

Does an aging Celtics roster need to engage the Magic before facing the Heat?

Or, turning it around, does a Heat team yet to experience playoff life together, first need the misery of pushing past Dwight Howard before getting to the Celtics?

For the fragile Lakers, might Mavericks followed by Spurs simply be too much for what appears to already be a fatigued roster?

Last season, the Celtics mocked the notion of regular-season barometers, advancing to the Finals as a No. 4 seed. But as we’ve since learned, the Cavaliers were headed for a huge fall and the Magic was on the verge of a significant makeover.

This season, though, there are enough gimmes on the schedule that staying close to the top shouldn’t be problematic, unless, like the Lakers, you wind up losing to the Pacers and Grizzlies and Bucks.

Currently, the Lakers hardly have the look of a team able to get past the Mavericks, let alone the Mavericks and the Spurs. They could use something a bit softer as an appetizer, be it the Jazz or Thunder or Nuggets.

As the calendar turns and the dog days of the NBA season approach, it would be easy to minimize the schedule. But in each conference, first place this season comes with a prize, namely fresher legs headed into the conference finals.

No, there is no first-round bye attached, like with the Falcons and Patriots, but there is an opportunity to buy some time until the latter stages of the playoff. And this season, that could mean plenty.

Ira Winderman writes regularly for NBCSports.com and covers the Heat and the NBA for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel. You can follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/IraHeatBeat.

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