In a postseason rife with the revenge factor, no team is looking to get even more than the Phoenix Suns. ( dpa )
Now armed with Shaquille O'Neal to add some rough-and-tumble to their run-and-gun, the Suns face the defending champion San Antonio Spurs on Saturday, the first day of the two-month test of endurance known as the NBA playoffs.
Spurs-Suns is one of four best-of-seven series that have familiar foes facing each other, three of which take place Saturday.
The postseason party begins with the Washington Wizards visiting the Cleveland Cavaliers for the third straight season. Saturday's last game has the Utah Jazz visiting the Houston Rockets, a rematch of last year's first-round meeting.
And on Sunday, the Philadelphia 76ers visit the Detroit Pistons. Philadelphia's last two trips to the playoffs ended with losses to Detroit in 2003 and 2005.
The history between the Spurs and Suns, however, makes it the most anticipated first-round matchup. The teams are meeting for the third time in four years, with the Spurs having won the previous two.
"We're going to have a great test right off the bat with San Antonio," Suns point guard and two-time Most Valuable Player Steve Nash said. "Obviously they're a franchise (who) have won four titles with this nucleus. So it's going to be a great series similar to last year and we're excited for it."
In last year's Western Conference semifinals, the Suns were closing out Game Four in San Antonio to even the series when Spurs forward Robert Horry body-blocked Nash into the scorer's table. Suns big men Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw came off the bench to defend their teammate and drew one-game suspensions.
The Spurs won the next two games and went on to their fourth title in nine seasons.
The teams also met in the 2005 conference finals, with the Spurs winning in five games as the Suns played without injured high-scoring guard Joe Johnson.
"I've been seeing San Antonio almost every playoff since I've been a Phoenix Sun," forward Amare Stoudemire said. "I think this time around we're feeling confident about ourselves."
The presence of the 7-1, 330-pound O'Neal - acquired in a February trade with Miami - may be enough to push the Suns (55-27) past the Spurs this time.
O'Neal gives Phoenix the ability to play a conventional half-court offense and extra size to defend San Antonio superstar Tim Duncan, easing the burden on Stoudemire.
"Shaq slows them down a little bit," Spurs guard and Argentina native Manu Ginobili noted. "So they gain a lot in one part, but they lose a little bit in another part. Still, Shaq is Shaq and you have to respect that."
The third-seeded Spurs have home-court advantage, but the road team has won seven of 11 meetings in the last two series between the clubs.
"There's going to be a lot of times we're going to have to win on the road, so we might as well start now," said Suns coach Mike D'Antoni, whose team is seeded sixth.
The Spurs (56-26) have looked old at times this season and never have repeated as champions during their decade of excellence. Given the strength of the West - where every playoff team won at least 50 games - and lingering injuries to Argentine star Manu Ginobili and Horry, this should be their toughest playoff trip.
The postseason tips off with the fourth-seeded Cavaliers (45-37) and superstar scoring champion LeBron James hosting the fifth-seeded Wizards (43-39) in an East series. The Cavaliers surprisingly reached the Finals a year ago.
Cleveland has eliminated Washington in the first round the last two years, but that hasn't stopped Wizards guards Gilbert Arenas and DeShawn Stevenson from challenging James with some strong words.
"We're trying distract LeBron over here while we try to get some wins over there," Arenas wrote in his blog on NBA.com.
Saturday's slate also includes two other West series. The seventh- seeded Dallas Mavericks (51-31) and German juggernaut Dirk Nowitzki visit the second-seeded New Orleans Hornets (56-26).
The fifth-seeded Rockets (55-27) host the fourth-seeded Jazz (54- 28) in another first-round rematch from 2007.
A year ago, Utah won Game Seven on Houston's floor, again denying superstar Tracy McGrady a trip to the second round.
The Rockets won 22 straight games this season - the second-longest streak in NBA history - but will be without injured Chinese superstar Yao Ming.
"I don't know if people expect us to win or not, but I don't know if people expected us to win 22 in a row," Rockets coach Rick Adelman said.
On Sunday, the seventh-seeded 76ers visit the second-seeded Pistons, who had the league's second-best record (59-23) and have reached the Eastern Conference finals five straight years.
Using an up-tempo offense, Philadelphia (40-42) used a 22-8 rush down the stretch to reach the postseason for the first time in three years.
Also, the third-seeded Orlando Magic (52-30) and superstar Dwight Howard host the sixth-seeded Toronto Raptors (41-41). Both teams made the playoffs last year, but Orlando hasn't won a series since 1996 and Toronto since 2001.
Both top seeds will take the court Sunday, with the Los Angeles Lakers (57-25) hosting the Denver Nuggets (50-32) and the Boston Celtics (66-16) entertaining the Atlanta Hawks (37-45).
MVP favorite Kobe Bryant leads the Lakers - who have not won a playoff series since 2004 - against the Nuggets, who have the best record of any eighth seed since the postseason went to a 16-team format in 1984.
"They are gonna come here with nothing to lose and very aggressive, so we have to be ready," said Spanish star Pau Gasol, who has helped lift the Lakers since being acquired in a trade in February.
Led by the superstar trio of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Ray Allen, the Celtics improved a record 42 wins from last season and should make quick work of the Hawks, who are in the playoffs for the first time in nine years.