Commentary

Freaky Sunday: Heat-Mavs identity swap

Five years after Miami's title hangover, champion Mavs now look sluggish, Heat hungry

Originally Published: December 25, 2011
By Marc Stein | ESPN.com

DALLAS -- When the hosts were hoisting their championship banner, LeBron James and Dwyane Wade and the rest of the Miami Heat were spilling into the hallway adjacent to the visitors' locker room at American Airlines Center, determined not to watch what was happening out on the floor.

When it was time for the roof-bound pulleys and cables to hang proof of what the Dallas Mavericks won in June at the Heat's expense, Miami's players walked off the court to jostle for wall space to lean on for some extra stretching.

And to watch crunch time in the Boston-at-New York nailbiter instead, thanks to the TV that hangs from the ceiling of the corridor where they did that stretching.

[+] EnlargeDwyane Wade
Jerome Miron/US PresswireDwyane Wade and LeBron James put on a show in Dallas, combining for 63 points and a few highlights.

"I was expecting some dramatic moment," Miami newcomer Shane Battier joked, toying with the media crowd around him about how the Heat distracted themselves. "I was expecting a dark cloud to descend over the hall. But there were no rah-rah speeches. Nothing like that.

"Anticlimactic is the word I'm looking for. Sorry, guys."

It wasn't the afternoon's lone letdown, either.

On Christmas Day in Big D, I'm afraid, anticlimactic proved to be the word of the day. The supposed shame of the Heat being forced to start the season in the midst of the Mavericks' moment of commemorative glory, thanks to a five-month lockout that dragged past Thanksgiving and delayed Opening Night, didn't rattle them one bit. The Mavs, meanwhile, couldn't have looked any creakier, flatter or more devoid of familiarity after their emotional pregame festivities, proving that a mere two weeks of practices and two exhibition games aren't enough to ready a team of thirtysomethings trying to counter the departure of defensive anchor Tyson Chandler with five new players.

Especially not when LeBron James, six months later that Miami was hoping for, finally shifted into Freight Train Mode.

"That's the way we'd love to see him all year, just being on attack at all times," Wade said afterward, marveling at James' 37 points, 10 rebounds and six assists after all that heat he took for his thoroughly punchless play in the last four games of the NBA Finals in June.

"As a competitor," LeBron said, "I never like to return to a season the same player as last year or the year before.

"It's time for me to get better."

Once that banner reached its destination, Dallas looked as though it wanted to be anywhere else. The Heat, by contrast, somehow made you think that the league's schedule-makers actually did them a favor, as ravenous and explosive as they looked.

Yet if any firm conclusions can be drawn from Sunday's Finals rematch, which Miami won by a deceptively close count of 105-94 after zooming to a 35-point lead that brought on garbage time before the fourth quarter even started, it's definitely not that James has banished all his demons.

After one regular-season game? Sorry, guys.

The strongest declaration you can make, after a rout that the Dallas bench dialed back to respectable in the fourth, is that these franchises -- linked forever after meeting for the title twice in a half-decade span -- are now in the process of swapping their old identities.

Which only cements those links further.

LeBron and the Heat are suddenly right where Dallas was after the 2006 Finals, meaning that nothing they do during the regular season -- no matter how gaudy -- is going to wow us for very long. The Mavs might have responded to their '06 Finals collapse by winning a whopping 67 games, but Dirk Nowitzki and Co. didn't achieve lasting validation until they won a championship of their own five years later, which is precisely where James finds himself now, even after uncorking a near-perfect game in his return to the national spotlight.

The Heat rolled up a stunning 18-0 shutout in points in the paint in the opening quarter and made the Mavs look painfully slow with their quick hands and lively bodies, with James and Wade forcing turnovers, getting out in transition and ultimately combining for a largely up-tempo 63 points while recording zero attempts from 3-point range. LeBron's mid-air tip pass to Wade for a dunk early in the third quarter, when Mario Chalmers' alley-oop lob sailed too high, is sure to be remembered as one of the plays of the season.

Yet even after he showed more determination, as promised, to try to play out of the post -- while also ringing up 19 trips to the free-throw line -- LeBron knew better than to suggest that he had mollified anyone.

Dobbs You can never [let] it go all the way. I beat myself up about a lot of stuff. I didn't talk to nobody or say nothing to anybody for three weeks, just moped around and let it sink all in until it's time to refocus. ... [But] I was glad I was able to get back up out of it and get back to work.

-- LeBron James

After initially revealing that this is "the best I've felt in a long time," James tacked this on just as the media crowd around his locker had begun to disperse: "I got a lot of work to do. Still."

Same goes for the Mavericks, who looked a lot like the 2006-07 Heat until that face-saving fourth quarter. Miami was clearly due for a win here, having lost nine consecutive regular-season visits to Dallas since March 2002, but the Mavs spent the first three quarters threatening to duplicate (or somehow exceed) the Heat's Heat's embarrassing 42-point home loss to Chicago on their ring-and-banner night five years back ... with Vince Carter (five points as a wholly ineffective starter) and Lamar Odom (ejected after two rapid-fire techs in the third quarter) making particularly forgettable debuts.

"You gotta throw this one out," insisted Jason Terry, whose 23 points in 29 minutes made him, along with Nowitzki (21 points), one of just two Mavs in the vicinity of their norm. "Today was a struggle, for whatever reason, but I like our pieces. I think we're loaded talent-wise."

The only comfort for the Mavs is that their shaky present is a path they chose. Owner Mark Cuban let Chandler and Barea go because he's determined to have significant salary-cap space for the summer of 2012 and because, according to sources close to the situation, Dallas is convinced it will be in the running for free agents-to-be Dwight Howard or North Texas native Deron Williams.

In 2006, after coming so close to a championship, Cuban paid nearly $60 million to Terry and signed then-coach Avery Johnson to a monster four-year extension that he had to eat after one season. Ruthless as it sounds right after a title, given the future-is-what-matters-now message sent to the holdover vets who survived the purge, Cuban was never going to authorize a repeat. He's determined to make future flexibility his priority -- even if it meant losing Chandler -- to give the Mavericks every opportunity to find a dynamic star in his 20s who can allow Nowitzki (34 at season's end) to age gracefully.

But that means Dallas, whether or not it really does have a shot at Howard or Williams, can't turn around and complain if the one-year gambles on Odom and Carter don't work, since the Mavs' brain trust willingly chose this course. As Mavs coach Rick Carlisle was moved to concede after his team incurred a 51-31 pounding on the boards, acknowledging the challenges of maintaining a spot in the West's elite while trying to blend in some stopgap signings amid teamwide age, athleticism and motivation concerns: "We're going to have to forge an identity with this team. It's a different team. That's work. And it's going to take honesty. And it's not going to be easy."

The Heat, however, have no such wiggle room. The fate of the James-Wade-Chris Bosh trio presumably rides on a championship-or-bust basis this season, with LeBron sure to get the blame even if it's Bosh (just four points in 24 minutes in his hometown on Christmas) who ultimately gets shipped out first.

Rest assured no one knows the stakes better than the guy whose 37 points just set a franchise record for scoring in a season opener.

A franchise record that James, after his infamous vows of multiple banner-hoistings shortly after arriving on South Beach, knows only goes so far.

"You can never [let] it go all the way," LeBron said of his Finals flop. "I didn't talk to nobody or say nothing to anybody for three weeks, just moped around and let it sink all in until it's time to refocus. ... [But] I was glad I was able to get back up out of it and get back to work."

Said Wade: "All I can go off is Game 1 of the season. [He was] very aggressive and not necessarily concerned with what anyone is saying about him. He's gonna have to do it all year. He's one of the most scrutinized players that has ever played in any sport. It's his job not to worry about it and [it's] his job to go out there be one of the most talented players to ever to play this game."


Marc Stein | email

Senior Writer, ESPN.com
• Senior NBA writer for ESPN.com
• Began covering the NBA in 1993-94
• Also covered soccer, tennis and the Olympics