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Utah Jazz would be a beast in the Eastern Conference

SALT LAKE CITY — With no games scheduled again until next week, the Jazz hoped to highlight their Christmas season by taking out the Toronto Raptors on Friday. It wouldn’t have been a fluke.

The Jazz live West of the Mississippi.

That seems to be the main criterion for good teams.

But it slipped away in the closing minutes, ending in a 104-98 Raptors victory. Too much DeMar DeRozan and too many Kyle Lowrys. In other words, two too many All-Stars.

Under different circumstances, the Jazz might have a couple All-Stars of their own. Trey Lyles isn’t one of them — though he played that way.

But as the final horn sounded, it was hard not to wonder (again) what the game would have meant under a different alignment. The Jazz took the second-best team in the East down to the end. This leaves open the age-old question about just how good the Jazz could be in the Eastern Conference. Answer: Dangerously good.

Whether that ever happens is another story. Which lent a sense of intrigue to Friday’s proceedings. Would the sixth-place Jazz give second-place Toronto trouble and further accentuate the difference between the conferences?

They did, in a sense.

There is still plenty of reason for Western teams to cry foul. As The Donald would say, it’s rigged. Playing in the West is like kick-boxing a kangaroo. The disparity started in the 1990s, shortly after Chicago ended its dominance.

With the Jazz’s 18-12 record going into Wednesday’s game, they were in sixth place, eight games out of first. But if they were in the Eastern Conference with Toronto, they would have been in third place, 4 1/2 games behind conference-leading Cleveland and three behind the Raptors.

Realigning conferences is a topic every year. On one side of the country, it’s siege, on the other a picnic.

Commissioner Adam Silver isn’t averse to change. He moved the All-Star Game out of Charlotte for social justice reasons and is now experimenting with five referees in the D-League, in hopes of improving officiating. He has said he wants to discourage the construction of super teams. Under his watch, a new Collective Bargaining Agreement was approved with almost no hitches.

Bold steps, one and all.

But he hasn’t yet bridged East-West parity. The East has had a winning record against the West just once since 1998-99.

This naturally hurts Western teams as they cannibalize one another. In 2004 the Jazz missed the playoffs for the first time in 20 years. But if they had been playing in the East they would have tied for fourth.

In 2006 the Jazz record would have been good enough for a tie for seventh in the East, but they finished ninth. The next year they placed fourth, but would have been seeded second in the East.

In 2008 they were a No. 4 seed, but would have placed third in the East. In 2009 they squeaked in at No. 8, but would have been a comfortable fourth on the other side of the aisle. Their 53 wins in 2010 would have tied them for third in the East, but left them with a fifth seed in the West.

Things really spiraled for the Jazz in 2011. They were the 11th best team in the West, but would have been eighth and made the playoffs in the East. The 2013 Jazz missed the playoffs but would have been seeded seventh in the East.

Utah’s 38 wins in 2015 were good for 11th in the West, but would have tied for eighth in the East.

Since 2004 the Jazz have missed the Western Conference playoff five times with records that would have qualified them in the East.

This season it’s more of the same. Going into Wednesday’s games, the West held an 88-75 lead.

Is it time to rezone the neighborhood?

Jazz president Steve Starks says the Board of Governors has discussed the possibility, but calls the phenomenon “cyclical.”

“We like traditional conferences; we like the geographical nature of them, and it’s cyclical,” he said. “Some decades, it may be in your favor, other decades it may not be. I don’t think realignment would be the answer.”

So the Jazz gave it a strong shot Friday, boosted by an unexpected 19-point night by Lyles. But a combined 60 points by Lowry and DeRozan was too much.

Again next spring Jazz fans will be able to rant about what might have been. But messing with the conferences isn’t an option.

“I think everybody in the organization wants to compete and battle it out in conference in order to get the ultimate prize,” Starks said.

Not to mention this: Who wants to see the Jazz play Philadelphia more than twice a year?