Rematches, returns on tap in NBA playoffs

Updated: 2007-04-20 08:58

Kobe Bryant and the Lakers get another chance to finish the job against the Suns. The Chicago Bulls try again to knock out the Miami Heat in the first round.

The NBA's second season is all about second chances -- and the Dallas Mavericks hope to get theirs in the NBA finals after their collapse against the Heat last year.

"There's only one champion," Mavericks coach Avery Johnson said. "No matter what you do in the regular season, at the end of the day you've got to try to get it done in the playoffs. It's not like you are playing against your 'B' team, where you are guaranteed to have the ring. There are other teams that have some say-so in this. It's not an easy task."

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The playoffs begin Saturday afternoon, starting with Vince Carter going back to Toronto in the opener of the Nets' series against the Atlantic Division champion Raptors. That's one of two high-profile returns in the first round, the other coming when Don Nelson leads Golden State into Dallas for the start of the Warriors' first postseason in 13 years.

Also Saturday, Miami visits Chicago in the rematch of a tense first-round series from a year ago; top-seeded Detroit hosts the Orlando Magic; and Utah travels to Houston for a matchup of former West powers back in the postseason this year.

On Sunday, Cleveland welcomes Washington in yet another first-round rematch; the Lakers head back to Phoenix; the Denver duo of Carmelo Anthony and Allen Iverson takes on San Antonio, and the league-best Mavs host the Warriors.

The NBA had one of its most exciting postseasons in 2006, with a record 10 games going to overtime. This one brings back three of its most competitive series from a year ago.

The Suns and Lakers also met in the No. 2 vs. 7 series. Los Angeles had a 3-1 lead before the Suns won the next three games, with Bryant managing only one point and three shots in the second half of Phoenix's 121-90 Game 7 rout.

"It haunted me all summer long," Lakers forward Luke Walton said. "It's not like we forgot about it. It's definitely in our heads. We have a lot of guys with a bad taste in their mouths. Hopefully, we will have a chance to redeem ourselves."

It won't be easy. The Lakers had an advantage in the middle last year. This time, Phoenix has both Amare Stoudemire and Kurt Thomas, possibly negating the interior advantage Los Angeles exploited.

"On paper, they're a better team with Stoudemire, a more powerful team," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "We just can't go inside against them like last year and change the course of the game by doing that. Stoudemire does have a presence."

The Suns' Raja Bell was suspended a game in that series for a hard foul on Bryant -- but that's nothing compared to the bad blood between Chicago and Miami.

James Posey was suspended a game for knocking Kirk Hinrich to the ground, and Udonis Haslem has been tossed twice against the Bulls in his career. The Heat think the Bulls, particularly Hinrich, are too aggressive against Dwyane Wade, and Chicago surely will want to test Wade's sore shoulder and knee.

Chicago played Miami as tough as anybody last postseason, splitting the first four games and going into the fourth quarter of Game 5 tied. Miami won that game and the next, but the Bulls crushed the Heat in the season opener in South Florida and won three of four this season.

"It's the same team we played in the first round last year, and that's a team we are pretty familiar with," Hinrich said. "Hopefully, we can go out and get the job done. We have confidence we can do that. They have so many weapons and they are so experienced, it's going to be a tough series."

The Heat haven't lost any confidence during their rocky season, even though the lower-seeded Bulls have home-court advantage because of a better record.

"We're the world champions," Heat center Alonzo Mourning said. "Whoever we play is in our way from accomplishing our goal. Plain and simple.

"If we are healthy and whole, we are ready. You guys will witness it come Saturday."

Cleveland-Washington was a thriller last year, with three one-point games, including two in overtime. But with the Wizards missing injured All-Stars Gilbert Arenas and Caron Butler, few are giving them a chance against LeBron James and Co. this time -- except Cavs coach Mike Brown.

"The playoffs are a different season and teams are capable of stepping up and winning games at any time," Brown said. "I was fortunate to be part of a team (Indiana) that everybody kind of wrote off. We had the same amount of things happen to us with suspensions and all that.

"We somehow found our way into the playoffs and we won our first-round matchup, and this was without one of our top guys, Ron Artest, and some other guys. Anything can happen at that point. We just have to stay focused and do our job."

That's Dallas' goal, too. The Mavs' 67-15 record was one of the best in NBA history, but their focus all along has been only on the finals, and getting those two wins they fell short of last time.

"The 16 teams, everybody is trying to win the championship," Johnson said. "We all know that. That's why we're here. We tried to not put an emphasis on the regular season. We talked about winning the championship from Day 1."

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