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Wednesday, May 24

   by Larry Ness - 05/24/2006

The Heat got excellent play from their 'new' players last night, as Payton, Walker and Williams combined for 41 points in Miami's 91-86 Game 1 win over the Pistons in Detroit. Wade had 25 points (on 9-of-11 shooting) and Shaq added 14-8, as the Heat shot 56.2 percent from the floor.

My free play is on the Chi White Sox over the Oak A's at 8:05 ET. I've ripped off FIVE straight Las Vegas Insider winners since Friday (2 in the NBA and 3 in MLB) and go for my sixth winner in-a-row tonight in Game 1 of the Suns/Mavs series. In MLB, I'm featuring one of my new Technical Insiders plus a 15* Blowout!

The Pistons are in the Eastern Conference Finals for the fourth straight year and the last team to do that was MJ's Bulls back in the early 90s. Was Detroit tired from its seven-game series with Cleveland or did the Pistons just play poorly? They sure shot poorly, making 37.8 percent as a team. While Hamilton and Billups combined for 41 points, they also made just 15-of-41 FG attempts.

Miami's win on the road follows a recent trend in the NBA conference finals, as home teams are now just 3-8 SU and 2-9 ATS in Game 1 of a conference final since 2001. Tonight (at 8:30 ET on TNT), the Suns hope that trend will continue, as they open the Western Conference Finals in Dallas against the Mavericks.

The Suns have needed seven games to win of their first two series while the Mavs, after a four-game sweep of the Grizzlies, beat the Spurs in one of the best seven-game series in NBA playoff history. The Suns eliminated the Mavs in last year's playoffs (4-2 in the semifinals) but of course Phoenix had a healthy Amare Stoudemire for that one.

The teams split four games during the regular season this year and the Mavs are favored by six points in tonight's game (220 1/2). For the series, Dallas is favored by about minus-$3.60.

The NBA's Final Four

As I've often mentioned, the NBA playoffs rarely offer many surprises. The Mavs did knock off the Spurs (their 63 wins were 2nd-best in this year's regular season) in the semifinals but the four remaining teams own the league's best regular season mark (Pistons with 64 wins), the league's third-best record (Mavs with 60 wins), the league's fourth-best record (Suns win 54 wins) and the league's fifth-best record (Heat with 52 wins).

Since the 1983-84 postseason (when the league went to a 16-team field), the NBA title has been won by a team finishing with either the best (including tied for the best) or second-best (again including ties) regular season record 19 times in 22 years! The exceptions came in 1993 (the Bulls owned the league's 3rd-best record), in 1995 (the Rockets were tied for the 10th-best mark!) and in 2004 (the Pistons had that year's 6th-best record).

There have been 12 titles claimed by the team with the best record (or tied for the best) and seven titles won by the team with the league's second-best mark (or tied for it). Of concern for Detroit fans may be the fact that the team with the league's best record has gone on to win the title just once in the last five years (the Spurs in 2003). In three of those five years, the team with the league's second-best record has taken the title.

So who are these guys? Everyone knows the Pistons, who won the title in 2004 and lost to the Spurs in last year's Finals in seven games. Detroit finished the regular season with a league-best 64 wins and as mentioned earlier, are in a conference final for the fourth straight year. The Pistons have a chance to reach the NBA Finals for a third straight year. That would be quite an accomplishment.

In fact, in NBA history, only three franchises have been able to reach more than three straight NBA Finals. Going in reverse order, Bird's Celtics did it from 1984 through 1987 (winning two and losing two), while Kareem and Magic's Lakers did it from 1982 through 1985 (also going 2-2). In another era, Red Auerbach led the Celtics and Bill Russell to 10 consecutive NBA Finals from 1957 through 1966, winning nine times (won eight straight from 59-66)!

The Pistons are the only one of the remaining four teams to have won a title, winning in 1989 and 1990, as well as in 2004. In fact, of the other three teams, only the Suns (way back in 1976 and again with Charles in 1993), have ever even played in an NBA Finals. However, Detroit's head coach (Flip Saunders), hardly owns an impressive playoff resume.

Saunders led the Timberwolves to eight consecutive playoff appearances from 1997 through 2004 but was eliminated in the first round in the team's first seven playoff seasons. He did take the T-wolves to the Western Conference Finals in 2004 but left Minnesota with a 17-30 mark in the postseason. After last night's loss, Saunders is 8-5 with the Pistons in this year's playoffs.

While Detroit is the only team left to have ever won an NBA title, Miami's Pat Riley is the only coach remaining to own a title. Riley won four championships with the Lakers (1982, 1985 and 1987-88). However, many would consider that "old news." While Riley has coached in more playoff games than any coach in NBA history (268 after last night) and owns more wins (164) than any coach other than Phil Jackson, he's done little recently.

Riley went 102-47 in the playoffs (.685) as LA's head coach from 1982 through 1990 but was just 35-28 in four playoff seasons with the Knicks from 1992 through 1995. After taking over the Heat in 1996 and before moving into the front office prior to the 2004 season, Riley's playoff record in Miami was just 18-25! However, if last night's results are any indication, maybe Riley's back?

The Heat are 9-3 in this year's postseason and if the Heat could win the title, Riley would join John Kundla with five titles. Kundla won his with the Minneapolis Lakers back in 1949, 1950 and 1952-54). Red Auerbach and Phil Jackson share the record with nine all-time titles. A Heat win would also allow Riley to join another exclusive club. Only Phil Jackson (six with the Bulls and three with Lakers) and Alex Hannun (one with the Hawks in '58 and one with the 76ers in '67) have won titles with two different teams.

The Suns are in the conference finals for the second straight year under Mike D'Antoni. Heading into tonight's Game 1, D'Antoni's playoff record is 17-12. While the Suns have been to two previous NBA Finals, none of the players on this year's roster have ever participated in an NBA Finals (on any team!).

As for the Mavs, this is just the third Western Conference Final in team history. The Mavs lost to the Spurs (4-2) back in 2003 and in 1988 to the Lakers (4-3). Avery Johnson is in just his second year as the team's head coach and his playoff record is 14-10. As for the current roster, only Keith Van Horn, who was with the Nets in 2001 when they were swept by the Lakers, as ever been to an NBA Finals.

Ness Notes is available Monday through Friday by 1:00 ET.

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