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NBA 1st Round

   by Tom Stryker - 04/23/2006

Late April means only one exciting thing for NBA fans. Lace ‘em up and let’s go. And that’s the exact situation facing the Indiana Pacers (vs. New Jersey Nets) and the Chicago Bulls (vs. Miami Heat) when the NBA playoffs open. We will profile today these opening round series involving teams from our own back yard. So settle back and take a look at how we see these two series shaping up.


BULLS vs. HEAT

Three weeks ago the Bulls season seemed over. About that same time, the Heat was rolling along with Dwayne Wade putting up MVP numbers.


Since then, a lot has changed. Chicago was the hottest team in the NBA, finishing 9-1 in April, earning Eastern Conference Coach of the Month honors for Scott Skiles - and, ultimately locking up the No. 7 seed for the playoffs. The Bulls actually closed 12-2 to save what had been a somewhat disappointing season after their qualifying last season for the playoffs.


But the Heat qualified as No. 2 seed and with Shaquille O’Neal and Wade well-rested and ready, can the Bulls really make this first-rounder a contest? Sure the Bulls beat the Heat 117-93 last week, but Pat Riley was resting his regulars while the Bulls were still driving to get into the playoffs.


On the other hand, the two other meetings between the two teams resulted in two Miami triumphs, but by three and one point, respectively. Wade was held to 14.5 points a game in those two outings. The Bulls have to have that same kind of defensive intensity to stay alive. Entering the final couple of games, the Bulls stand No. 1 in the NBA in defensive field goal percentage.


Over time, when teams with less talent are pegged as huge dogs, it’s time to get scared. There is nothing to lose scenario going for Chicago in this first-round matchup.


Nonetheless, finishing 52-30 the Heat indeed are a top-heavy favorite. And Wade’s 27.2 season-long scoring average is a big reason for the Miami success. O’Neal averaged 20, but many expect him to be a warrior in the playoffs.


Ben Gordon (16.9) and Kirk Hinrich (15.9) lead the Bulls. Their inside play will be monumental in this series, so the burden may likely fall to folks like Tyson Chandler and Luol Deng.


Game One is at Miami at 8 p.m. Saturday.


PACERS vs. NETS

Just like No. 7 seed Chicago, No. 6 seed Indiana used a successful late-season run to lock up its place in the playoffs.


Yes, the Nets posted 49 victories and Pacers struggled to finish even at 41-41, but both Rick Carlisle of Indiana and Lawrence Frank of New Jersey know they better look at all the asterisks on that regular season.


For instance: All-Star Jermaine O’Neal was sidelined for 31 games. Point guard Jamaal Tinsley missed 40 games. Would the Pacers have been a No. 3 seed without those injuries?


Frank is approaching this first-round series as though his team is playing a title contender. And that’s probably smart.


One key, according to Frank, is going to be the play in the paint. New Jersey knows it can’t afford to let Indiana have multiple shots. Ditto for the Pacers, who won five of their last six games and enter the postseason on a roll.


Keep in mind that much of the Pacers’ strong finish came against non-playoff teams, but a victory over anyone in this league all counts the same.


The Pacers have beaten New Jersey 8 of their last 12 outings and feel they match up well. The almost-healthy Pacers obviously will go to O’Neal, who led the club with 20.1 per game. Peja Stojakovic is at 18.2 and has given the Pacers a chemistry and an angle that Ron Artest couldn’t. And Stephen Jackson scores at 16.4.


What do the Pacers do defensively? Easy. They have to slow the one-two punch of Vince Carter (24.2) and Richard Jefferson (19.5). But New Jersey played strong all year with plenty of help. Jason Kidd (13.3) and Nenad Kristic (13.5) can’t be ignored.


Their fist-round contest tips off at 1 p.m. Sunday in New Jersey.

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