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Knicks, Heat up for finale

Gone is the bad blood, trash talk and brawling that once marked the rivalry between the Heat and New York Knicks. What's left is hard-earned mutual respect _ and another winner-take-all playoff game today.

The Knicks staged a stunning comeback Friday from an 18-point deficit to win Game 6, forcing the series to the limit for the fourth consecutive season. And as always, the deciding game will be in Miami.

The winner advances to the Eastern Conference final beginning Tuesday at Indiana. The loser spends the summer stewing about missed opportunities in the seesaw series.

"It's fun to be a part of it, competing with these guys," Knicks forward Latrell Sprewell said. "It means so much to both sides. It's a shame somebody has to lose, but hopefully it won't be us."

Such sentiments would have been astonishing just a couple of years ago, when the rivalry was filled with bitterness and prone to violence. This year's series has been physical and hard-fought but free of fights and filled with thrilling finishes.

Now the big question is whether the Heat can regroup from its devastating Game 6 defeat at Madison Square Garden. Miami led by 18 points in the second quarter and by 15 at halftime, then scored just 25 points in the second half.

"We could be on vacation right now," New York center Patrick Ewing said. "But there's still life in us."

The Heat arrived home at 5 a.m. Saturday, and coach Pat Riley gave his players the day off.

For the Heat, the circumstances are hauntingly familiar. They were eliminated by New York in a winner-take-all Game 5 in Miami each of the past two years, losing last season when Allan Houston's shot bounced the Knicks' way in the final second.

Three years ago, the Heat eliminated New York in Game 7, also in Miami.

The pivotal factor today?

"Probably who has the last possession," Heat forward P.J. Brown said.

Could be, because it's hard to imagine teams more evenly matched. In 23 playoff meetings over the past four seasons, the Knicks have 12 wins, the Heat 11.

The home court has been of little advantage. Since 1998, the Heat is 4-5 at home in playoff games against the Knicks.

The close competition between teams so similar has transformed the nature of the rivalry. The nastiness is in the past.

"It's synonymous with any group in a sport that fights tooth and nail for years," Riley said. "It hasn't made either side soft or less work-ethic oriented. But even athletes at this level will eventually have a level of compassion for one another."

DRAFT LOTTERY: The Magic has three picks in the top 13 of the draft and has a remote chance at sweeping the top three spots when the lottery is conducted today in New York.

Orlando owns its own pick, which has the worst chance (.5 percent) of being drawn No. 1, Denver's pick and Golden State's spot. The Magic has the third-best chance (15.7 percent) of winning the Ping-Pong lottery that will be held at halftime of the Knicks-Heat game. The Clippers (25 percent) have the best chance, followed by Chicago (20 percent). The draft is June 28 at Minneapolis.

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