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                ***** NBA Previews from The Sports Network *****
                               Sunday, April 20th
                              (All times Eastern)
 ( - For the sixth time since 2001, the San Antonio Spurs and
 Dallas Mavericks will square off in the playoffs, starting Sunday afternoon at
 the AT&T Center.
 For the 17th consecutive season, the Spurs will be in the postseason.
 For the seventh time since 1997, the Spurs finished with the best record in
 the Western Conference. The Big Three of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu
 Ginobili returned intact and key contributors did exactly what Spurs' role
 players do - they played sensationally.
 Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green, Tiago Splitter, Patty Mills, Boris Diaw and,
 especially newcomer Marco Belinelli, played brilliantly for stretches this
 Popovich is a master of resting his players as the season progresses and San
 Antonio heads to the postseason in good health.
 "We had an unbelievable regular season, we put ourselves in a great situation
 to be No. 1 overall," said Ginobili. "We're going for it, like every year."
 If there was ever a season the Spurs could've folded, this would've been the
 one. Their longevity is stunning, but this season could've very easily been a
 championship defense until Ray Allen stuck a dagger in the Spurs' hearts.
 Miami's Allen made a crazy 3-pointer to tie Game 6 of the NBA Finals, a game
 the Heat went on to win. Miami took Game 7 to win back-to-back titles, but the
 inevitability of a San Antonio win in Game 6 was so clear, tape was being put
 up around the floor in Miami to prepare for San Antonio's celebration.
 "What does impress me about the group is that they've gotten themselves in
 this position after a devastating loss in the Finals last year," Spurs head
 coach Gregg Popovich said earlier in the week. "I thought they were pretty
 amazing after Game 6 to play as hard as they did in Game 7, when I think a lot
 of teams would have just given in. Beyond that, they came back, put it aside
 and have done what they've done. I think that's pretty impressive. I don't
 think a lot of people have picked up on that but I have and I'm really
 impressed with them."
 The Mavericks are back in the playoffs after a one-year absence, meaning
 Dallas has been in the postseason 13 of the last 14 years. They earned the
 eighth seed after a gritty overtime loss on Wednesday to the Grizzlies in
 "Yeah, we'll be OK," Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle said immediately after the
 loss in Memphis. "I feel good about our team. I really do. And (Wednesday
 night) is a great indication of the fight we have in us. We're going to take
 that fight to San Antonio."
 The Spurs have won nine straight against their Texas rivals, including a four-
 game sweep this season, but that doesn't mean Dallas doesn't know what it
 takes to beat San Antonio.
 "What you've got to do against San Antonio is you've got to be a little
 smarter than we were in the last couple of outings," said Mavericks forward
 Dirk Nowitzki. "We feel like one little, two little mistakes and boom, it's a
 three. A brutal missed boxout, pass out and three. Against that team you've
 got to be smart, you've got to execute perfectly and we've got to shoot the
 ball well."
 Nowitzki made yet another All-Star team with averages of 21.7 ppg and 6.2 rpg.
 He shot 90 percent from the foul line, almost 50 percent from the field and
 just about 40 percent from long range.
 Monta Ellis and Jose Calderon joined the Mavs in the offseason and formed a
 very strong backcourt. They combined to average 30.4 ppg and 10.4 apg.
 (7) CHARLOTTE BOBCATS (0-0) AT (2) MIAMI HEAT (0-0), 3:30 P.M.
 ( - The Miami Heat begin their title defense in earnest on
 Sunday afternoon when they welcome the Charlotte Bobcats to American Airlines
 Miami has won the last two NBA titles and lost in the Finals three years ago
 to the Dallas Mavericks. The Heat have made the playoffs 10 times in the last
 11 years and earned the second seed in the Eastern Conference.
 Miami has won four straight Southeast titles and is trying to become the first
 three-time champion since the Los Angeles Lakers from 1999-00 to 2001-02.
 "I don't need extra motivation. I'm motivated enough," said LeBron James.
 "This is the best part of the season, it's the best time of the year. I'm
 happy to be here once again."
 The Heat had a real chance at the No. 1 seed, but head coach Erik Spoelstra
 elected to sit James and Chris Bosh the last two games. Dwyane Wade missed
 significant time toward the end, but he played late to get some timing back.
 "We've got to carry the load," said James, who said all Heat players
 participated in practice for the first time since training camp. "It's great.
 I guess guys are ready for the playoffs."
 The decision to concede the No. 1 seed could hurt later in the postseason, if
 the Heat advance. Last season, Miami won Game 7 of the Eastern Conference
 Finals against the Indiana Pacers and Game 7 of the NBA Finals against the San
 Antonio Spurs in South Beach.
 The Heat come into the postseason in a bit of a rut. They lost the last three
 games of the regular season, although, they did rest some key pieces. However,
 Miami did drop six of its last eight and James and Bosh were in the lineup for
 most of those setbacks.
 Charlotte is in the playoffs for only the second time in franchise history and
 was swept in four games by the Orlando Magic back in 2009-10.
 The Bobcats surprised the NBA world with just the second record of .500 or
 better in team lore at 43-39, one season after going 21-61 and compiling only
 28 wins in the previous two years. What was the difference this season? That
 would be the offseason addition of Al Jefferson.
 Jefferson, the reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Month for April,
 averaged 21.8 points and 10.8 rebounds for the Bobcats, who were 20-9 after
 the All-Star break and ended with 14 wins in the last 19 games of the regular
 season. Jefferson was the only player in the Eastern Conference and one of
 only five players in the NBA averaging at least 20.0 points and 10.0 rebounds
 on the season.
 New head coach Steve Clifford infused the team with a defensive mindset. The
 Bobcats finished fourth in opponents' scoring and sixth in opponents' field-
 goal percentage.
 Charlotte did have some trouble scoring this season. The Bobcats finished 23rd
 in points, while Miami was 12th. The Heat ranked fifth in opponents' scoring.
 The Bobcats won their last three regular-season games and eight of their last
 The Heat swept all four games against the Bobcats in the regular season and
 are undefeated in the past 16 games between the teams. Charlotte has lost nine
 straight and 12 of its last 13 trips to South Beach.
 ( - The Chicago Bulls begin another playoff run without
 Derrick Rose on Sunday night when they welcome the Washington Wizards to the
 United Center.
 Chicago is in the postseason for a sixth straight year and for the second time
 without Rose because of lingering knee issues. The Bulls got by without Rose
 in the first round last season, using a full seven-game series to dispose of
 the Brooklyn Nets, but the eventual two-time NBA champion Miami Heat bounced
 the Bulls in five games in the East semifinals.
 Now the Bulls are taking on a young and inexperienced Wizards team that won
 two of three meetings against them in the regular season. The Wizards have to
 play the first two games in the Windy City, where they are just 5-15 in the
 last 20 games.
 "The Wizards are a tough team, tough, tough team," said Chicago sixth man Taj
 Gibson. "They gave us so many problems in the regular season; great shooters.
 They got some great bigs in Nene and (Marcin) Gortat. John Wall is playing
 some phenomenal basketball. Bradley Beal is playing great basketball, too.
 Their bench is loaded up. It's going to be tough."
 When Rose went down early this season, the Bulls became Joakim Noah's team,
 although defense is still their calling card. Chicago finished tops in the NBA
 in opponents' scoring (93.7 ppg) and second in opponents' shooting percentage
 (43.2). The Bulls have ranked no lower than third in opponents' scoring in
 head coach Tom Thibodeau's four seasons at the helm.
 Noah is headed toward a possible Defensive Player of the Year award, but his
 offensive game is what carried the Bulls. He averaged 12.6 points and led the
 Bulls with 11.3 rebounds and 1.5 blocks. Noah played an integral part for
 Chicago's top defense, but also averaged a career-high 5.4 assists.
 Chicago won an Eastern Conference-best 36 games since Jan. 1 and won seven in
 a row before closing out the season with two losses in three tries.
 Washington is wet behind the ears when it comes to recent postseason
 appearances. It has returned to the playoffs for the first time since 2007-08,
 when it lost in six games to a young LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
 The Wizards are facing the Bulls for the third time in the postseason, as they
 were swept 3-0 back in the first round of the 1997 playoffs and won a best-of-
 seven series 4-2 in 2005.
 "I feel like we like our chances against anybody if we play the right way,"
 said Wall, who averaged 20.7 points, 8.0 assists and 4.0 rebounds in three
 games versus the Bulls this season. "We just have to go out there and play the
 way we know how to play, and play the defense we're capable of playing. We're
 here and we're focused and will try to leave a statement and see where it
 takes us."
 The Wizards received a big boost with the return of veteran big man, Nene. He
 missed a ton of time in the middle of the season, but came back for four games
 at the end. He averaged 14.3 points and should come in handy against the
 bruising frontline of Chicago.
 Washington took advantage of a weaker Eastern Conference to reach the playoffs
 and went 19-11 after the break. The Wizards closed the regular season with
 four straight wins and eight in the last 11 games.
 ( - Two of the league's best offensive units take center
 stage Sunday night when the Houston Rockets host the Portland Trail Blazers at
 the Toyota Center.
 The Rockets are the NBA's second-ranked offense at 107.7 ppg, followed by the
 Trail Blazers, who are fourth with 106.9 ppg.
 Houston secured the home-court advantage with a win on Monday against the
 NBA's best, the San Antonio Spurs.
 "We fought hard for it. It took a little longer than I hoped but we knew we
 had to get 54 wins and we got there with one to spare," said Rockets coach
 Kevin McHale.
 The matchup between the two squads has been decidedly in Houston's favor over
 the last few seasons. The Rockets have won nine of the last 12 meetings,
 including three of four this season.
 "It's the West. We don't care who we're going to play, it's going to be tough
 anyway," said Portland forward Nicolas Batum. "Houston is a good team, a great
 team. They've got a good group of players. We match up pretty well with them.
 We've had good games, tough games."
 The Rockets were believed to be a serious contender for an NBA title when they
 signed prized free agent Dwight Howard in the offseason. Along with All-Star
 guard James Harden, they form a formidable one-two punch.
 Portland, on the other hand, was a bit of a surprise this season. The Blazers
 hadn't made the playoffs the last two seasons, but the core group stayed
 healthy and the bench improved significantly.
 These two teams met in the first round back in 2009, but oh how different they
 both are just five years later. Houston has no players on the roster from that
 team, which was led by Yao Ming, while only LaMarcus Aldridge and Batum remain
 for the Blazers.
 "It won't be easy. It is going to be fun," said Batum. "Excited finally for
 playoffs to start because we wait too much for that, now almost three years,
 so ready to start."
 The Rockets got healthy at the right time. Howard missed significant time late
 in the season with an ankle injury and starting point guard Patrick Beverley
 was shelved with a knee problem. Both came back before the end of the season
 and should be all-clear for the playoffs.
 Portland is healthy.
 This matchup is so even, down to the matching 54-28 records. Each team had two
 All-Stars in Howard and Harden for Houston and Aldridge and Damian Lillard for
 As expected due to both teams' high offensive output, defense has suffered.
 The Blazers ranked 22nd in opponents' scoring, while the Rockets were one rung
 "It's going to be a great series," said Harden. "There are so many guys that
 can score for them and for us. It's going to be a matter of the small things:
 who can limit their turnovers and rebound the basketball."
 04/20 10:44:40 ET

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