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Heat-Bulls Preview

AP - Sports

As the top two teams in the Eastern Conference, the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat seem on course for a showdown in the conference finals for a second straight year.

That could make for playoff intensity in the regular season.

The Heat will look to win their sixth straight over the Bulls, who hope to have Luol Deng back Wednesday night at the United Center.

Miami defeated Chicago in five games in last season's conference finals, but the last two of the Heat's wins in that series went down to the wire - one went to overtime. The last four regular-season meetings between these teams have been decided by a total of 12 points.

Miami won the only previous game against Chicago this season, 97-93 at home Jan. 29 behind 35 points from LeBron James.

Derrick Rose finished with 34 for the Bulls, but missed a pair of free throws and a potential game-tying basket in the final 23 seconds.

"The way I see it, every time we play the Bulls it's going to be like that," Heat forward Chris Bosh said. "It's always going to be an atmosphere where nobody wants to lose and that's how the playoffs are."

Bosh and the Southeast Division-leading Heat (31-10) are 2 1/2 games behind the Bulls (35-9), who have won 10 of 11, for the top spot in the East. However, Chicago coach Tom Thibodeau believes his club is the one with more to prove.

"We're chasing them," he said. "They're the Eastern Conference champions from last year. We have to come out and play hard."

The Bulls hope to have Deng back after he missed the last two games with a wrist injury. The small forward returned to practice Tuesday as he tries to play through torn ligaments.

"I want to see how he feels after practicing but he went through everything and felt pretty good," Thibodeau said.

The statuses of Richard Hamilton (shoulder) and reserve C.J. Watson (ankle) are also uncertain for the Bulls.

Chicago won both games Deng missed, including a 104-99 home victory over New York on Monday. Rose finished with 32 points, six rebounds and seven assists but also got hit with a $25,000 league fine for criticizing the officiating after the game.

Rose did not practice Tuesday, but Thibodeau said that was to give the reigning league MVP time to recover from the contact he absorbed against the Knicks.

While Miami hopes to extend its recent dominance of the Bulls, it's also trying to snap a three-game road losing streak.

After winning three in a row at home, the Heat failed to protect a 14-point halftime lead at Orlando on Tuesday and fell 104-98 in overtime. Dwyane Wade scored 28 points and Bosh added 23, but James was held to 19 - his fewest points in eight games - and scored just two points after the third quarter.

"They executed and made more plays in the overtime,'' James said. "We're not going to hang our heads over this one. We played hard.''

It was the second straight overtime game for the Heat, who defeated Indiana 93-91 on Saturday.

James is averaging 32.7 points in his last three games against the Bulls.

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