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Miami at Chicago

Derrick Rose has already missed more games than any reigning MVP in league history besides Bill Walton, who sat out an entire season due to a contract dispute after being named the NBA's best in 1978. A nagging right ankle injury suffered Sunday in New York has replaced an ailing groin as his current obstacle, but he did participate in practice Wednesday and expects to play in this Eastern Conference showdown against the Heat barring any setbacks. His status is ‘probable.’

The Bulls have basically fielded two separate teams without Rose readily available, but have been nearly as successful in his absence. Entering Thursday, Chicago is 16-7 without Rose as opposed to a 28-7 mark when he's been out there running the show.

The Heat have seen both versions, beating a Rose-led squad at home 97-93 on Jan. 29 and losing in Chicago when third-stringer John Lucas relieved replacement C.J. Watson and dropped 24 points in 27 minutes on March 14.

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and his team expect to see a full-strength Bulls squad in a barometer game to see where the Eastern Conference front-runners stand with two weeks remaining in the regular season. The good news for the Heat is that they beat a team featuring Rose and Richard Hamilton in that first meeting. The bad news is that victory came at home and required Rose missing a pair of free throws and potentially game-tying jumper in the final 22 seconds.

Dwyane Wade, still not at 100 percent after missing Sunday's win over Detroit with a bum ankle, scored 36 points to complement LeBron James' 35-point outburst in last month's loss. The win fed Chicago's confidence that it can succeed even when its defense fails to clamp down on Miami's stars, holding the supporting cast to 8-for-34 shooting. The Bulls out-rebounded the Heat, 50-34, which is a major factor in why an EC Finals that went 4-1 in Miami's favor last May can be reversed should the teams meet again.

Omer Asik fractured his left fibula in a 103-82 rout that wound up being Chicago's only win in the series, curbing his team's biggest advantage over the Heat: size. He's now healthy and teaming with Taj Gibson behind starters Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, combining to give the Bulls a quartet of rim-protectors to handle the boards and discourage Wade and James from attacking the paint.

Miami is still scrambling to find the right combination of bigs opposite Chris Bosh, who comes in looking to atone for a 3-for-15 night that cost his team dearly in the Mar. 14 loss. Ronny Turiaf has replaced Joel Anthony as starting center, but you can expect the heat's slumping top shot blocker to re-emerge ahead of Juwan Howard, Eddy Curry and Dexter Pittman, Miami's other interior options.

Spoelstra will undoubtedly use this game to take a long look at his potential big rotation after going small in Tuesday's 115-107 loss to Boston. With the size edge in Chicago's favor, Miami needs Wade to be his normal aggressive self to keep the surging James from seeing constant blitzes designed to get the ball out of his hands.

The Heat have dropped two of their last three home games and are playing just their second road trip this month. They've won just once in their last four road games. The Bulls have notched huge wins at the United Center over New York and Boston in their last two outings and are 7-1 at home against Eastern Conference opposition since the All-Star break.

The Bulls have been installed as 1 ½-point favorites, while the total is hovering between 186 and 187 points.

Memphis at San Antonio

Gregg Popovich supplies the major variable here and dropping no hints as to what he's going to do with tonight's rotation. After casting aside San Antonio's 11-game win streak by sidelining Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in Monday's loss at Utah, the leading candidate for NBA Coach of the Year honors was unpleasantly surprised by his entire team unexpectedly taking the night off in a 98-84 loss to the Kobe Bryant-less Lakers on Wednesday.

L.A. led from virtually start to finish, going up by as much as 26 points and holding the Spurs to just nine free-throw attempts and one offensive rebound while winning the battle of the boards, 60-33. Andrew Bynum, grabbed a season-high 30 rebounds, nearly matching San Antonio's entire total.

Can the Spurs flip the switch back on? Most important, how vital is it to Popovich that they do so?

Because the Lakers loss was so lopsided, no one played more than 27 minutes or expended much energy. Still, the Spurs are in a stretch of eight games in 11 days and show no signs of being concerned with staying in the race with Oklahoma City for the Western Conference's top seed and homecourt advantage that comes with it.

By contrast, the Grizzlies have won seven of eight games and are counting on earning a top-four seed and continuing their current surge. Memphis has beaten the Thunder, Mavericks, Heat, Clippers and Suns, all teams with winning records, since the month began. They've done it without stopper Tony Allen, who continues to sit as a nasty facial injury suffered after catching an errant elbow from teammate O.J. Mayo on April 4.

Clearly, sense of urgency will be the key to determining a winner at the AT&T Center, but don't put it past the Spurs pulling out a convincing win if Popovich is committed fielding a full squad. Memphis memorably eliminated top-seeded San Antonio in last year's playoffs, but the Spurs have clearly found an extra gear for this season's meetings, sweeping the first three encounters.

It must be noted that Zach Randolph only played in the season opener, where he was a shell of himself due to poor conditioning. Randoph missed the games in Memphis on Jan. 30 and Feb. 8 as a result of a knee injury that has cost him much of the season, but he's really hit his stride over the past four games while coming off the bench. Following last night's 17-point, nine-rebound output in a win over Phoenix, Randolph is averaging 14 points and 11.5 boards, looking like the difference-maker he was in overwhelming the Spurs frontcourt during last year's playoff shocker.

It remains to be seen whether Popovich seeks out a measuring stick game or is continues to take the cautious approach with his roster. San Antonio opened as a 5 ½-point home favorite but that number could dip based on the personnel the Spurs suit up. Even though the Grizz hold the braggin’ rights from last year’s postseason, San Antonio has won and covered all three meetings this season with the last encounter coming on Feb. 6.

The Grizzlies’ offense put up 104 points in last night’s victory over Phoenix, which snapped a nine-game run to the ‘under.’ Tonight’s total is listed between 196 and 197 at most shops, which could be surprising since the ‘under’ cashed in all of the first three meetings.

Final Four Favorites

East: Chicago vs. Miami
An Eastern Conference finals rematch has been in the cards since the moment the lockout was finally resolved.

West: Oklahoma City vs. San Antonio
Thunder GM Sam Presti learned the craft by climbing the ladder in San Antonio and built the Thunder with the Spurs model of consistency in mind, so it will be ironic that his team's second crack at an NBA Finals would go through them.

Playoff Sleepers: Boston, Memphis
The Celtics just got Mickael Pietrus back and seem to be carving out defined roles that agree with them. Making one last run offers great motivation. The Grizzlies have elite size and championship-caliber defense. With Rudy Gay in the mix to play closer, the Western Conference has another small-market team threatening to rise to power.

Rogers: Tuesday's Tip Sheet
Lawrence: Playoff Zig-Zag Theory
ASA: Handicapping the Playoffs
News: First Round Series Odds
Lawrence: First Round Playoff Trends
Hawks hold off Wizards, even series 2-2
Raptors beat Bucks 118-93 in Game 5
Bulls to start Canaan at PG in Game 5
Backup PG Rivers to return in Game 5
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