MIAMI -- Like Ali vs. Frazier, like Leonard vs. Duran, it's only natural that the war between the NBA's prime pugilists evolve into a trilogy.
Knicks-Heat III, coming up.
For the third straight year, the New York Knicks and Miami Heat step to the center of the ring and touch gloves for a playoff tussle Saturday, Game 1 of a first-round series that promises hard feelings and hard fouls.
And, if the past two battles are any indication, perhaps some hard time under NBA suspension.
"The first two series, I guess it was a boxing match -- a rumble in the jungle, or whatever it was," Knicks guard Chris Childs said. "It's hard to play a basketball game when you've got bodies on bodies without getting into a skirmish, but I think cooler heads will prevail."
At least that's what both sides are hoping. Elsewhere, prevailing sentiment can be whittled down to one question: Who's going to rumble?
Two years ago, it was Heat forward P.J. Brown and New York guard Charlie Ward, a mismatch on the court that led to an even bigger mismatch away from it when four Knicks were suspended for leaving the bench. Miami won that series in seven games.
Last year it was Miami's Alonzo Mourning and New York's Larry Johnson, a blood feud that goes back to the days when they were teammates in Charlotte. Without Mourning patrolling the middle, New York prevailed in five.
"Guys should have learned their lessons and how suspensions hurt their seasons," Brown said. "I'd be very surprised if there was any of that stupid stuff going on."
It's a fine line, however. When the teams last met at Miami Arena, a tussle for position between New York's Kurt Thomas and the Heat's Jamal Mashburn wound up with their forearms near each other's throats. They were separated before things deteriorated.
"Intensity is something we both play with, so we're going to have skirmishes," Ward said. "It's just a matter of understanding not to go over that line."
Heat coach Pat Riley doesn't expect another fight to break out. "I wouldn't be surprised if there was a physical confrontation -- pushing and shoving," he said. "But I'd be surprised if it went beyond that."
The teams are almost mirror images, even though Riley left New York four years ago. Riley protege Jeff Van Gundy kept the system when he became Knicks coach, and the similarities only lend intensity to the rivalry.
"If they call out a play, we know it and vice versa," New York's Johnson said. "This is going to be one of the best series in the playoffs."
New York's Patrick Ewing appears ready to go for Saturday's opener, although his sore left Achilles' tendon will be a question throughout the series. The 7-footer took part in Friday's one-hour practice before the Knicks left for South Florida.
"For what he did, he looked all right," Van Gundy said.
Oddly, the Knicks have beaten Miami four straight times when Ewing has been out of the lineup and five of the past seven. That includes all of last year's series, when Ewing sat out with a dislocated wrist, and the final two meetings of the regular season.
Two weeks ago, the Heat took advantage of Ewing's absence to build a 20-point lead midway through the third quarter. But New York scrapped back to win 82-80, sparking a final burst in which the Knicks won six of their last eight.
For Miami, Mourning and reserve Mark Strickland will play with facial protection. Mourning has been wearing wraparound glasses to protect a cracked right eye orbit. Strickland, who has a broken nose, is wearing a face mask similar to the one Mourning wore a year ago.
In last year's series, Mourning wore the mask for the first three games to protect a healing left cheekbone. He discarded it for Game 4, complaining it hampered his vision. But the move may have contributed to last year's fight, with Mourning saying the Knicks took shots at his unprotected cheek.
Riley expects the Knicks to try similar tactics this year, and Mourning knows he must keep his cool.
"Stay on the floor, that's all I've got to do," he said. "If I stay on the floor, we've got a better chance to win."
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