All Eyes on the Finals

After disappointing playoff exits last season, the Detroit Pistons and Miami Heat each have set their sights on returning to the NBA finals. The two teams look to take their first steps toward a conference title in their season opener Thursday.

Oddsmakers from have made Detroit -4.5 point spread favorites (NBA Odds) for todays game, the over/under has been set at 181 total points (Matchup). Our public betting information shows that 85% of bets for this game have been placed on Detroit -4.5 (View NBA Bet Percentages).

The Pistons have reached the conference finals five straight years, but the 2004 champions have not represented the East since losing to the San Antonio Spurs in seven games the following postseason. Detroit lost to eventual NBA champion Miami in six games in 2006 and in six games to Cleveland last season.

"It shows that we've been really good for a long time," said Pistons shooting guard Richard Hamilton, the team's top scorer in 2006-07 at 19.8 points per game. "But it also shows you that we need some of our younger guys to bring energy off the bench like we did in our championship year."

While Detroit is looking for its youth to deliver, it still returns a veteran-laden nucleus. Point guard Chauncey Billups, who averaged 17.0 points and a team-high 7.2 assists, signed a five-year, $60 million contract after testing free agency in the offseason.

"I definitely think we can contend for the championship," Billups said. "A lot of things have to go right - like they do for everyone."

Rasheed Wallace will again anchor the frontcourt after averaging 12.3 points and 7.2 rebounds. The mercurial power forward had 21 technical fouls in the regular season, and was ejected in Game 6 against the Cavaliers, but appears focused after losing 20 pounds in the offseason.

"I look at it as another seven-game series we should have had last year," said Wallace, referring to Detroit's elimination by Cleveland after winning the first two games of the series. "But, it will happen this year - that's because it's personal."

Antonio McDyess, who averaged 8.1 points and 6.0 rebounds as a top reserve, will start at center following the offseason departure of Chris Webber.

The Heat struggled following their first championship season in an injury-plagued 2006-07 before being swept by Chicago in the first round. Center Shaquille O'Neal missed more than half the season due to a knee injury, while 2006 finals MVP and leading scorer Dwyane Wade was sidelined 25 of the final 29 games due to a shoulder injury.

O'Neal was hurt two games into the season, and Miami struggled to find any consistency without Wade before regrouping to win the Southeast Division. The 7-foot-1 center averaged career lows of 17.3 points and 7.4 rebounds, but did total 54 points and 23 boards in two games versus the Pistons last season.

"I don't think about last year," said the 35-year-old O'Neal, who played a career-low 40 games in 2006-07 and has missed 65 games the last two seasons. "Nobody cares about the past. You always look forward toward the future. Last year was a difficult year, a different year, but now we have a new year to look forward to."

After an 0-7 preseason as well as a 108-66 rout at the hands of the Bulls in last season's opener after the Heat raised their championship banner, O'Neal has admitted an urgency to this game.

"It's very important," O'Neal said about the season opener. "You always wake up the next day and see 1-0, not 0-1. You always want to be 1-0 and at the top of your standings, not start off at the bottom. It's been a long summer, everybody's been waiting anxiously for us to be back, so we'll try to give them a good show. And we will."

Wade, who averaged 27.4 points and team highs of 7.5 assists and 2.1 steals, is expected to be out until mid-November as he recovers from offseason knee and shoulder surgeries.

The Heat made a key trade to compensate for Wade's absence and space the floor for O'Neal, acquiring swingman Ricky Davis from Minnesota in a five-player trade on Oct. 24. He averaged 17.0 points last season while making a career-high 39.7 percent of his shots from 3-point range.

"The securing of a perimeter player who could score, who could shoot, who had experience as a starter transcended all other needs. And that's why we did it," Heat coach Pat Riley said.

Miami was thwarted in its bid for a third straight trip to the Eastern Conference finals after losing a decisive Game 7 at home to Detroit in 2005 before advancing in six games in 2006.

Detroit won two of three games between the teams last season and split two games in Miami.

By: Marc Young - - Email Us

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