October 27, 2005

Heat, Pacers ready to rule the East

By Steve Ginsburg

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Miami Heat came within one game
of reaching the NBA Finals a year ago and now appear poised to
take it to the next level.

"I love the Miami atmosphere," said perennial All-Star
center Shaquille O'Neal, who has averaged at least 20 points
and 10 rebounds for 13 straight seasons.

"The Miami Heat has the best fans. (President) Pat Riley
put together the right team. It's our job to give them a good

Add point guards Gary Payton, Jason Williams and forward
Antoine Walker to the mix and you have a team ready to
challenge for the title after last season's Game Seven loss to
the Detroit Pistons.

Led in the backcourt by gritty, high-scoring Dwyane Wade,
the Heat should at least match last year's East-leading 59-23
record. They begin their season on November 2 at Memphis.

The Indiana Pacers figure to make a run at the Heat for the
top spot in the East, hoping to leave the memories of last
year's on-the-court and in-the-stands brawl against the Pistons
behind them.

The NBA suspended Pacers All-Star Ron Artest, Stephen
Jackson and Jermaine O'Neal. Coupled with a slew of injuries
last season, the 44-38 Pacers had the maximum 12 players in
uniform for only 17 of 82 games.


The Pacers were hurt by the retirement of Reggie Miller,
the franchise's all-time leading scorer, but are hoping guards
Stephen Jackson and Fred Jones can fill the void.

O'Neal, who averaged 24 points and nine rebounds a year
ago, is set to become the team's maestro following the
departure of Miller, the NBA's three-point king.

"We are, without question, moving into a new era," said
coach Rick Carlisle. "On the other hand, we have a group of
players now who have been together for a while who are ready to
carry the torch forward."

The Pistons have lost coach Larry Brown but made few
changes from last year's 54-28 team, which is good news for
Flip Saunders.

"With free agencies and with the way things are it is tough
to keep teams together," the coach said." Not only to keep a
starting five, but to have 12 guys or 11 guys back from a team,
that just doesn't happen very often. Continuity is always

The New Jersey Nets look loaded, with guard Jason Kidd's
knee healed and swingman Richard Jefferson ready for a full
season following a debilitating wrist injury.

LeBron James averaged 27 points a game last year but the
Cleveland Cavaliers are going to have to give him some help if
they are to improve on their 42-40 record.

The third-year small forward was the first player to lead
the league in both minutes played and field goals made since
Michael Jordan in 1988-89.


Washington won a playoff series for the first time in 23
years but will sorely miss guard Larry Hughes, who moved to the

The Chicago Bulls and Philadelphia 76ers should make the
postseason once again but it will be a struggle for the New
York Knicks, who scored a big off-season coup by landing Larry
Brown as their coach.

The nomadic Brown, who has won everywhere he has been, has
his work cut out for him coaching the Knicks, who were 33-49
last season -- their fourth straight sub-.500 campaign.

"Every day we go out and practice. We are all getting
better," said Knicks guard Stephon Marbury. "Especially at the
mental aspects of the game."

"We are beginning to see the outlines of something much,
much better happening here," he added. "And, well, what can I
say? It is a very nice feeling."

Milwaukee, Boston, Orlando, Toronto, Atlanta and Charlotte
will battle for the postseason.

The Bobcats were 18-64 a year ago with standout forward
Emeka Okafor doing everything but handing out towels during
timeouts. They should be improved, having added rookies Raymond
Felton and Sean May and veteran Josh Voskuhl from the Phoenix

"Collectively, the group has been what we wanted them to be
in terms of that commitment to effort," said coach Bernie