The Chicago Bulls and the Miami Heat entered this season as Eastern Conference title contenders. Instead, they're finding their seasons slipping away.
The Heat hope the return of Shaquille O'Neal can help them avoid their 11th straight defeat as they host the Bulls on Wednesday night in the opener of a season-high seven-game homestand.
In 2006-07, the Bulls won 49 games for their highest total since 1997-98 - Michael Jordan's final season with Chicago. Miami, meanwhile, overcame numerous injuries to finish at 44-38. The Bulls swept the Heat in the first round of the playoffs before bowing out in the second round against Detroit.
With the Bulls having gained valuable experience and the Heat hoping to avoid another injury-plagued season, each club had hopes for a longer playoff run in 2007-08. Chicago (14-22), however, has floundered, ranking near the bottom of the league in scoring (93.8) and field-goal percentage (41.8).
Their early struggles led to the firing of coach Scott Skiles on Dec. 24. They're 5-5 under interim Jim Boylan, but are still tied with Milwaukee at the bottom of the Central Division.
Meanwhile, the Heat (8-28) have been unable to overcome the early absence of Dwyane Wade and the more recent one of O'Neal, who hasn't played since Dec. 26 because of a hip injury.
O'Neal practiced Tuesday and coach Pat Riley said he will "surely, probably" have him back in the starting lineup Wednesday.
"I think (O'Neal's) explosion has looked good the last two days," said Wade, who missed Miami's first seven games after offseason knee and shoulder surgeries. "The main thing is to stay healthy as he continues to go through practices and games."
O'Neal, one of the league's dominant post players, has also been hampered by a sore left knee during the least productive season of his 16-year career. He's scoring a career-low 13.9 points per game while averaging 7.9 rebounds - the second-lowest total of his career.
O'Neal's struggles have been only a small part of Miami's dreadful first half. The 2005-06 NBA champions are mired in their longest losing streak since dropping 12 in a row Nov. 8-Dec. 4, 2001.
"We've been searching all year," said Riley, whose team capped an 0-5 road trip with a 114-88 loss to New Orleans on Friday. "This is now about a major effort every single night - mentally, physically and spiritually.
"We have to play the game a lot better than we have played it. We have to show a lot more resolve. Then you let the chips fall."
Miami starts play 9 1/2 games behind New Jersey for the eighth and final playoff spot in East.
Chicago made only three of 14 shots as it was outscored 32-10 in the third quarter of an 102-88 loss at Orlando on Tuesday.
"We had a lack of effort all the way across the board by just about everybody," Boylan said. "Our defense is soft and anemic at times and we just seem to be casual with the ball. If we want to get ourselves right, we have to change the way we're playing."
The Bulls were without point guard Kirk Hinrich, who missed the game with back spasms. They also lost reserve forward Andres Nocioni in the third quarter because of a hip bruise. Both are day-to-day.
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