As if the Miami Heat weren't motivated enough to win it all, their season begins by having to watch the title banner get raised by the team that beat them to claim it.
The lockout is over and Christmas is here, so it's time for LeBron James and Dwyane Wade to kick off the Heat's quest to dethrone the Dallas Mavericks as NBA champions with an NBA finals rematch.
Before the game gets underway in Dallas, the Mavericks' championship banner will be raised to the rafters at American Airlines Center. However, it seems the Mavs are a virtual afterthought as the season begins. Most oddsmakers do not have them among the top few picks to win the 2012 title, whereas Miami is generally the odds-on favorite.
"We didn't come together to make the playoffs or come together to win a playoff series, we came together to win the NBA finals and that's what it's about," said James, whose 23.7 scoring average in the 2011 playoffs was 3.0 below his regular-season mark. "We know how long of a journey it was to get there, so we know what it takes to get there. We just try to have a better result if we happen to get back to that point."
Dallas (57-25) knocked off the Heat in six games in the championship round, spoiling the first season of James and Chris Bosh joining Wade in Miami (58-24). The Heat didn't make any major changes this offseason other than adding Shane Battier, but are hopeful another year of their superstar trio playing together will be enough to get James and Bosh their first rings and a second for Wade.
"For us, getting better is not necessarily going to show in our numbers," said Wade, who scored 25.5 per game last season. "It's going to show in our leadership. It's going to show in those moments where we get in those games like the finals where we're up 10 in the fourth quarter, how do we help our team get that win no matter what's going on in the game."
That's what Dirk Nowitzki and company did in last season's playoffs when they stunned the Los Angeles Lakers in a second-round sweep before beating Oklahoma City in the conference finals and knocking off the Heat.
Nowitzki turned 33 this summer and most of the Mavs' top players are in their 30s, plus Tyson Chandler, Caron Butler and J.J. Barea have all departed. Those are big reasons many aren't picking them to repeat as champions.
"We weren't the favorites to win it last year, so nobody really knows what's going to happen," said Nowitzki, the finals MVP after averaging 26.0 points - 3.0 above a season average that was his lowest in seven years.
"Last year, it just worked out. The chemistry was great, guys wanted to win and play with each other. To me, the team is set up kind of the same again with a bunch of older guys that want to win."
One of those guys is Lamar Odom, who may have newfound motivation after his surprising departure from the Lakers. He didn't realize they were trying to get rid of him until being part of the Chris Paul deal that never went through, then felt further disrespected when he went to Dallas in a trade that involved no other players.
The reigning Sixth Man of the Year may play a key role - as could newcomer Vince Carter - for a team needing to make up for the loss of Chandler's defense and rebounding, Barea's spark off the bench and Butler's scoring. Odom, who averaged 14.4 points and 8.7 rebounds last season, does bring the experience of having won back-to-back titles in 2009 and 2010.
"If they thought winning a championship was hard, defending it is going to be ... it's tough," Odom said. "It changes the mindset of teams, and of your team. It's tough. But if a team can do it, this one can."
Miami was expected to win multiple championships when its trio of stars came together but doubts will continue to linger until it wins one. The Heat surely are expecting to get off to a better start after opening 9-8 last season.
Battier should be a big help defensively and in 3-point shooting, but Miami is still considered fairly weak at point guard - Mario Chalmers should get the bulk of those minutes - and in the frontcourt other than Bosh.
Coach Erik Spoelstra, who received a contract extension during the offseason, feels the James-Wade partnership - and growing bond - should be enough to get the Heat over the top.
"Those guys like to be challenged," Spoelstra said. "They do not accept the success that they've had and where they are right now. They're always trying to push to go to the next level."