- Michael Wallace, ESPN Staff Writer
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LeBron James won't see many familiar faces when the Dallas Mavericks visit AmericanAirlines Arena to face the Miami Heat on Friday. Only Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion remain from the Mavericks' team that defeated the Heat in six games to win the 2011 NBA Finals. But James insists the Heat also hardly resemble the team -- stylistically as well as in makeup -- that squandered a 2-1 series lead more than two years ago.
“We are a totally different team than we were in 2011,” James said of the Heat, who have struggled at times defensively this season but will carry the league's No. 1-ranked offense into Friday's game. “Our makeup has changed with how we share the ball, how we play together and how we are defensively.”
To James, the Heat have been a different team since that Finals loss to Dallas. The psychological and schematic makeover began to take shape after the lockout-shortened 2011-12 season opened with the Heat's convincing win against the Mavericks on Christmas Day in Dallas.
Shane Battier was signed at the start of that season to help space the floor with shooters, the Heat converted to a more up-tempo style, James expanded his game and Miami never looked back.
“We had a lot riding on that game and that season,” James said of a tone-setting victory. “We came in with a lot of motivation after losing the [previous] Finals. And from that point on, we kept it going throughout the whole year.”
Heat coach Erik Spoelstra has repeatedly said he cringes when he's in the office and comes across old game footage of the team's cluttered style of play in the 2010-11 season. Bosh said it just took trial and error for Miami to work through some of those initial kinks.
“The chemistry is awesome [now] and we know what we're doing out there,” Bosh said Thursday of the Heat, who are averaging 28.1 assists through eight games. “The ball just moves. It's to the point now where we don't have to call plays. We don't have to run plays. We just go out there and play, and we're in the right spots at the right time.”
Wade agreed that the Heat have come a long way since that rough first season together -- one that still ended with the Heat overcoming shortcomings to still play for a championship. Facing Dallas serves as a reminder of where the Heat were back then, and how they've progressed.
"Obviously, we had the talent,” Wade said. “We just had the uncertainty of when to be aggressive individually. We've grown offensively. This team, it's different from any other team in the league. Some nights, your number is going to be called more than others. Some weeks, your number is going to be called more than others. And you've got to be OK with that and not be selfish."
Developing into a consistent play-making point guard isn't easy on a team that has James and Wade controlling the ball so much, but Mario Chalmers is off to the best start of his six-year career.
Through eight games, the much-maligned Chalmers is averaging 10.4 points, 5.3 assists, 2.3 steals and just 1.9 turnover per game. His assist-to-turnover ratio is one of the most best in the league.
“I'm just trying to be a leader on the court the best way I can,” Chalmers said. “With these guys, they're going to handle the ball so much. My job is to make it easier and get them easy layups and open looks.”
Chalmlers' scoring, assists, steals, rebounds and 55.7 percent shooting on 3-pointers are career-high numbers. After years of up-and-down play, Chalmers is confident he'll remain consistent this season.
“They say with age comes wisdom,” Chalmers said. “But it's just been me getting more comfortable. Being around these guys for so long, it's bound to happen.”
Ray Allen remained away from the team Thursday as he continues to recover from the flu-like symptoms he's been dealing with since Sunday. Spoelstra said Allen “is starting to turn the corner” with how he feels but would be evaluated Friday before his status is determined for the game against Dallas.
Udonis Haslem returned to practice Thursday after missing the past two games with back spasms. Although his status has yet to be determined, Haslem said he hopes to get back on the court.
“I'm just going to be smart and continue to listen to the training staff,” Haslem said Thursday. “I got a good workout in [and] I'm going to get another one in tomorrow, then we'll see how it feels after that.”
Did you know?
The Heat will finally get around to wearing those jerseys with player nicknames on the back for three remaining games against Brooklyn (Jan. 10, March 12 and April 8) and one against Boston (Jan. 21).
Quote of the day:
“They all want to see me do better than I have in the past. It's kind of like LeBron said the other day, 'I'm keeping my foot on your neck' to make sure I stay on the straight and narrow and do what I need to do.” -- Michael Beasley, on expectations teammates have for him to stay focused on and off the court.