By TIM REYNOLDS
MIAMI (AP) LeBron James started thinking about what a playoff opener against the New York Knicks would mean a few days ago. Amare Stoudemire started talking about taking down the Miami Heat a few months ago.
Here they are.
One of the most hotly contested NBA postseason rivalries of a generation ago is about to be rekindled.
The second-seeded Heat open defense of their Eastern Conference championship - and look to take the first step toward grabbing a bigger prize - when they host Game 1 of the playoffs against the seventh-seeded Knicks on Saturday afternoon.
Miami went 3-0 against the Knicks this season, two of those wins coming before New York ended the regular season with 18 victories in 24 outings.
"We're all looking forward to the challenge again," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said Friday. "And what we did was recommit to an unknowable future. There's more than a handful of teams that feel exactly like us right now, that feel like they have a legitimate chance to contend for a title.
"Nothing is guaranteed. We understand that. But what can be guaranteed is our commitment to each other and to this journey."
It's the first time the Heat and Knicks play a postseason series since an epic run of four straight years of matchups from 1997 through 2000. All of them started with Game 1s in Miami. All of them went the distance. New York won the final three.
The history may add some intrigue, but the players involved this time around say they already know this one won't be lacking for spice.
"It's going to be a fun series," said Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony, who'll likely be matched up much of the time against James, a favorite to garner his third MVP award in four years. "It's going to be a tough series. At this point, we're just ready to play."
Still, to get ready what's coming up against Miami, the Knicks have spent some time talking about the past.
New York center Tyson Chandler's last postseason game was also in Miami - the one where he and the Dallas Mavericks wrapped up a victory in the NBA finals last June. And yes, Chandler (who couldn't practice Friday and was left at the hotel with the flu) has talked to his new club about what it takes to capture the moment in the playoffs.
So has Allan Houston, who hit a shot to win the 1999 New York-Miami series, still a painful moment for Heat fans. Knicks coach Mike Woodson asked Houston - now an assistant general manager for the team - and another veteran of those series, Larry Johnson, to provide some motivation not long ago. They happily obliged.
"We shared a couple of things," Houston said. "Mostly it was about them. It really wasn't about us. It was about what they have the potential to do."
It probably hasn't been easy for either side to completely prepare for this series. For starters, the game will tip off about 36 hours after the Heat returned home from the regular-season finale in Washington.
Also, even the teams involved aren't sure what to expect from themselves.
Stoudemire played in only four games over the final month of the season because of a back injury, and he and Anthony have looked far from in synch during their time on court together in the last week.
"We're focused, man," Stoudemire said. "We've got a keen sense of what we've got to do to win. Easier said than done, but preparations have been great. Everybody's studying. So we're good to go."
For Miami, Wade has been out with a dislocated left index finger, Heat backup center Ronny Turiaf - New York's starter in last season's playoffs - is coming back from a hamstring problem, and Chris Bosh missed the season's final six games with his own hamstring troubles. On Friday, Bosh insisted that he's good to go.
"If I step on the court, I'm not limited," Bosh said. "If I play out there, no matter what happens, there are no excuses. If I'm out there I expect to play at a high level."
Same goes for James, who got the final two games off to rest a number of nagging issues.
He didn't wait for the Knicks to clinch the No. 7 seed on Thursday night - Philadelphia, last year's first-round foe for Miami, also could have gotten the 7 spot if the Knicks stumbled - to start prepping for his matchup with Anthony, J.R. Smith or anyone else New York throws his way in this series.
"Mentally, I got in on them," James said. "I didn't go through the books, I didn't go through the film session, but mentally I started thinking about the Knicks, thinking about the matchups, thinking about their personnel, things like that. The mind had already started working."
Hey, it was December when Stoudemire was overheard in the Knicks locker room saying that the team could go "hunting" in Miami this season - and then clarifying to say the team could hunt "D-Wade and LeBron."
All in good fun, but it shows that even before the season started, New York probably figured Miami would be in its postseason path.
"We all talked about it before, playing against each other in the playoffs," Anthony said. "Right now, the time is now. I know I can't wait. I'm pretty sure they feel the same way."
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Updated April 27, 2012