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  • Game info: 8:00 pm EDT Tue May 23, 2006
  • TV: ESPN

PLAYOFF SERIES: Eastern Conference finals; Game 1.

Even though their journeys to get here didn’t go as many expected, the Miami Heat and Detroit Pistons are squaring off again in the Eastern Conference finals.

Just as was the case last year, Shaquille O’Neal and the Heat enter well-rested as they try to prevent the Detroit Pistons from returning to the NBA Finals.

“That’s what everybody expected,” Miami forward Udonis Haslem said. “I guess that’s what everybody wanted to see. It’s time for the games everybody wants to talk about to happen.”

Considering the Pistons finished with the league’s best record and the Heat were No. 2 in the East, it was widely predicted these teams would meet in this round for a second straight season.

However, while most observers expected Miami to be in for a long series against New Jersey, the Heat blew through the Nets in five games in the semifinals. Detroit, meanwhile, was surprisingly pushed to seven games by an inexperienced Cleveland team, having to stave off elimination on the road in Game 6 before prevailing 79-61 in Game 7 at The Palace on Sunday.

That left the Pistons with only one day off between games—this will be their sixth game in 11 days—while the Heat are coming off six days of rest. Entering last year’s East finals, Miami had eight days off following a second-round sweep of Washington, and Detroit needed six games to oust Indiana.

It was the Pistons, however, who won the series to reach the NBA Finals for a second consecutive year, taking Game 7 in Miami. This time, Game 7 would be in Detroit.

“We don’t get the rest, but it’s also a situation with Miami where they haven’t played in a while, so you never know how that can turn out,” Pistons forward Tayshaun Prince said. “It feels good to have three or four days off, but when you have a little bit longer, I think you get out of rhythm a little bit.”

The time off should benefit the 34-year-old O’Neal, who has played well against the Pistons in recent years despite his teams not having the same success. The superstar center has been ousted from the playoffs by Detroit each of the last two years—the Pistons ended his eight-year run with the Los Angeles Lakers in the 2004 NBA Finals—and Miami lost three of four games against Detroit this season.

Those four meetings saw O’Neal average 28.0 points—his most against any team during the regular season—and he’s averaged 23.9 points and 9.1 rebounds while shooting 58 percent in his last 19 games against the Pistons. O’Neal’s teams, however, have gone 6-13 in that span.

“We knew that we had to go through this team to possibly make it to the next level. Once again, we accept the challenge,” O’Neal said. “We know what we have to do as a team, just have to go out there and play hard and limit our mistakes. … If we do that, we’ll be fine.”

In their only win over Detroit this season, 100-98 on Feb. 12 in Miami on Dwyane Wade’s 16-footer with 2.3 seconds left, the Heat committed five turnovers while the Pistons had 15. Detroit won the turnover battle in the other three meetings, forcing a total of 27 in the last two matchups to win by a combined 22 points.

Playing suffocating defense continues to be the key for Detroit even though it’s considered to have an improved offense under first-year coach Flip Saunders.

The Pistons failed to score 85 points in any of the final five games of the second round, losing the middle three games, but held the Cavaliers below 31 percent shooting in Game 7.

“In a pressure situation, you do what you do best, and for us, that’s defending,” Saunders said.

Two days after holding LeBron James to one second-half field goal, Detroit hopes to shut down another third-year superstar.

Wade has scored at least 20 points in every game this postseason, and has reached 30 in four games. He averaged 28 points against the Pistons during the regular season.

A strained rib muscle kept him out of Game 6 in last year’s conference finals and he was limited to 20 points in Game 7 as Detroit rallied from a 3-2 series deficit.

“His skills are similar to LeBron, but he’s going to be the second option. LeBron didn’t have Shaq on the block, taking up space in the paint,” Detroit’s Ben Wallace said. “It’s going to be a little bit tougher. We’re going to ask guys to come out with a lot of energy and play hard. We’re just going to do what we do.”

The Pistons may need more production in this series from Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace. Billups was limited to 14.9 points per game on 37.7 percent shooting in the second round, and Hamilton averaged just 15.7 points in the last three games. Wallace was held below 14 points in four of the final five games.

While Detroit can be led offensively by so many players, including Prince, who emerged to average 18 points in the Cleveland series, Miami’s scoring output usually depends on O’Neal and Wade. The Heat, though, may have found a consistent third option in Antoine Walker, who averaged 19.7 points in the final three games against New Jersey.

“We’re rested. We’re healthy. I think we’re happy,” Miami coach Pat Riley said. “And I hope we’re humble, or more humble. We have to go up there and we have our work cut out for us with Detroit in Detroit. They’re a great team.”

HOW THEY GOT HERE: Heat - 2nd seed; beat Chicago Bulls 4-2, first round; beat New Jersey Nets 4-1, conference semifinals. Pistons - 1st seed; beat Milwaukee Bucks 4-1, first round; beat Cleveland Cavaliers 4-3, conference semifinals.

PROBABLE STARTERS: Heat - F Walker, F Haslem, C O’Neal, G Jason Williams, G Wade. Pistons - F Prince, F Rasheed Wallace, C Ben Wallace, G Billups, G Hamilton.

PLAYOFF TEAM LEADERS: Heat - Wade, 26.0 ppg and 6.9 apg; O’Neal, 9.2 rpg. Pistons - Hamilton, 20.3 ppg; Ben Wallace, 11.0 rpg; Billups, 6.2 apg.

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