|Unlike last season, Dwyane Wade and the Heat start the season with a win. (Getty Images)|
DALLAS -- LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the rest of the Miami Heat were in the visiting locker room at American Airlines Center Sunday afternoon when the Mavericks' championship banner made its way to the rafters.
The Mavs had their moment, had their fun at the expense of the Heat one more time. They earned it and deserved it, and these were all things James was careful to say in the locker room afterward.
The day, however, belonged to LeBron and the Heat. If ever there were a symbolic exorcism of past failures, this was how it would have been scripted. This, perhaps, was the moment James was envisioning during three weeks of self-imposed shiva after the Finals -- a time when he "just moped around and let it all sink in until it was time to refocus," he said.
That time, quite obviously, has arrived.
Facing a defending champion with more than a few issues to resolve, the Heat unleashed a mortal helping of fast-paced, floor-spaced dominance -- a dizzying plan of attack that should've been their means of vanquishing prey from the moment they paired James and Wade in July 2010. James, who admitted afterward that he was lost much of his first season in Miami, led the way with 37 points as the Heat avenged their Finals loss with a 105-94 victory over Dallas on opening day.
"That's the way we'd love to see him all year -- just being on attack at all times, mixing his game up a little bit, hitting his pull-up jumper and attacking the rim," Wade said of his possessed teammate. "That's the LeBron James we want to see through 66-plus games."
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It's the LeBron James everyone thought the Heat were getting a year ago, but the one that only materialized for spurts during their first season together -- the one who crumbled in the crucible of the Finals with an epic disappearing act against the Mavs.
"I just wasn't myself last year," James said. "Throughout the whole year, there was a lot going on last year on the court and off the court. And so once I was able to figure the things out to get better individually on the court and off the court, I was able to focus on my game and get better. I'm happy where we are. I'm happy where I am right now. This is the best I've felt in a long time."
Translation to those who've only heard about what the Mavs witnessed first-hand Sunday from James: Be afraid.
"You can tell he learned from the games," Wade said of LeBron's post-Finals period of introspection. "He went back and he watched a lot. He understands how teams are going to play him. He did his homework. He went to school on the way teams are playing him and the way teams are playing us and what he has to do."
Wade evidently logged a few credit hours at the University of Remorse, as well. James and Wade combined Sunday for four dunks (three by Wade), 12 layups (making seven) and the most telling statistic: zero 3-point attempts. James settled for a long jumper here or there, but the tendency both showed in the Finals to launch threes instead of attacking the rim was, for one day at least, expunged.
With 31 fast-break points to the Mavs' 10 and a 44-28 advantage in the paint, the Heat played at the kind of pace that always was supposed to make them a team with a potency rarely witnessed in NBA history -- if they'd only stick with it consistently. Heat coach Erik Spoelstra should've long since burned Pat Riley's old playbooks and sent one of Riley's moles to steal Mike D'Antoni's from the Knicks coach's desk drawer in New York. Just put the ball in the hands of his two thoroughbreds -- both unguardable in the open floor -- and get out of the way.
"We have to be able to play different styles," Spoelstra was insisting Sunday outside the visiting locker room. "Sometimes we need to be aggressive in the open court and sometimes we need to be disciplined in the half-court."
With the Mavs shooting 38 percent from the field and losing the rebounding battle 51-31, there was no need for discipline. Just get it and go, which is what James and Wade did all afternoon -- to the tune of a 35-point lead at one point and 32 points at the end of the third quarter.
"We're a dangerous team when we play defense," James said. "And our defense is all about help, reacting and speed. Once we get a stop, we have athletes that want to get up and down the floor. In our careers, myself and D-Wade have always been up in the league as far as paint points and fast-break points as individuals, so that definitely helps when you get defensive stops to get out and run."
It all sounded simple coming from James on Sunday, which is how it was supposed to have been from the moment he first stepped onto the court with Wade last season. It was not to be. The backlash from "The Decision," the growing pains of melding two stars with similar games and ultimately, the pressure to live up to it all led to their undoing in a humbling six-game loss to Dallas in the Finals.
For three weeks, James said he did nothing and called no one -- just stewed in the mess that he'd made. Then came the lockout, a dispute he largely stayed out of as the owners and players were on a collision course with blowing up the season, and with it, James' chance to make it all right.
"We have a good team, and another year of experience, having that full year, has helped us," James said. "There's no way that it couldn't. We've seen everything. There's nothing that can surprise us as far as being on the road or at home or with the media or whatever the case may be. We've seen it all in our short time together. We're a better team right now to start the season than we were last year at the start of the season."
Without Tyson Chandler patrolling the paint in Dallas on Sunday, it wasn't a fair fight. Letting Chandler walk as a free agent in an effort to clear cap space for one -- or possibly two -- star free agents next summer was a strategic move the defending champions will have to carry with them through this shortened, 66-game title defense. The addition of Vince Carter (2-for-6 and yanked from the starting lineup at halftime) and Lamar Odom (1-for-6 and ejected when he picked up two technicals in the third) made no one forget about Chandler or DeShawn Stevenson or even Peja Stojakovic.
"We don't know what our finished product is going to be yet because we have some guys who are relatively new," Mavs coach Rick Carlisle said.
But while the eyeballs will still be on the Mavericks, some of them have moved on from the Heat -- who have somehow become yesterday's news and last year's team. The Lakers' anticipated turbulence, the Bulls and Knicks both relevant again and the Clippers suddenly being the most interesting team in L.A. -- all of these storylines seem to have conspired to allow Miami some room to breathe.
"This year would probably be different no matter what, regardless of the other storylines," Spoelstra said. "There's always something new. There has to be a new twist, a new angle, a new headline, and we'll probably have a little bit less light on our team. But that doesn't mean we're ruling it out. I'm sure it will come at some point."
Probably so. But for now, the Heat can at least say that this season has started a lot better than the last one ended.