The Miami Heat open the 2011-2012 season against the team that ended their season six months ago: the Dallas Mavericks. Instead of starting a defense of an NBA championship, the Heat will watch the Mavs raise a championship banner of their own in Dallas.
"It's going to suck," Chris Bosh said earlier this month
about watching the Mavs' banner go up before the game. It will no doubt bring up memories of June's heartbreaking NBA Finals loss, but that should give the Heat extra motivation to start the season with a win.
Not that they will need it. Having come within two wins of a title in the Big Three's first go-around, Dwyane Wade, Lebron James and company have set their goals as high as possible heading into the season.
"If we don't win a championship, yes, it's a bust year," Wade said
during the team's media day earlier this month. He, James and Bosh are out to prove that they can win a title largely on their own, with a supporting cast of role players and aging castoffs.
Neither team will appear much different from the versions that appeared in June's NBA Finals. The Heat have added forward Shane Battier and center Eddy Curry to the mix, but their core remains the same: the Big Three alongside PG Mario Chalmers, C Joel Anthony, and sixth-man Udonis Haslem.
The Mavericks have lost C Tyson Chandler to free agency, but the rest of their starting five remains intact. NBA Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki anchors a veteran lineup that includes Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion and Jason Terry. Sixth-man and former Heat forward Lamar Odom arrived via the Lakers this month.
Losing Tyson Chandler to the New York Knicks will likely hurt the Mavs against the Heat. Though he was not a scoring threat, he had a strong Finals last June, grabbing 53 rebounds (24 on the offensive side) and being obstructive on defense.
Heat fans are generally excited about the addition of Battier, both for his stellar reputation on defense and his ability to sink outside shots (he's shot 38.5% from three-point range during his 10-year career).
But Battier is questionable for Sunday's game due to a quad injury. He called himself a "strong maybe
" when asked Friday about his status. Curry has been ruled out, with a hip injury. So the Heat team on the floor Sunday will look almost exactly like the one from the Finals.
Sunday's game is just one of 66 for this year's version of the Heat; it would be foolish to ascribe too much importance to it. But judging from last year's experience, when the team struggled out of the gate en route to a 9-8 start, the Heat can avoid some of the excess scrutiny it received last year with a win over the defending champs.
Regardless, for South Florida sports fans Sunday will be a time to rejoice. Basketball is back, and the Heat have provided a convenient excuse to start ignoring the Miami Dolphins.
Tipoff is on Sunday at 2:30 p.m. on ABC.