There was a lot of uncertainty on Christmas Day, three months ago.
The defending champion Dallas Mavericks resembled anything but. Tyson, J.J., Caron and DeShawn were all missing. Delonte, Lamar and Vince stood in their place.
The pieces were new, but they seemed to fit - in time. While it would be almost impossible to recreate the luck and, what it felt like, magic, of last year without the same cast of players, these new Mavericks at least had potential to replace the production after a few weeks of games.
The only thing certain that Sunday afternoon was that the Mavericks were going to lose. Oh, and that the Heat are going to be good. Damn good.
It showed on opening night. The Mavericks looked a step slow, still too fat from a large helping of championship pie. Miami looked determined, focused and fierce. They moved the ball more in that game then it seemed in the entire 2011 Finals. The defense was attacking and relentless. New role players shined. The fact that the final score was just an 11-point margin might have been just as crazy as the Mavericks championship run.
Since then the only thing consistent about the Mavericks has been their inconsistency. Injuries have contributed, but game-to-game Dallas appears to be worthy title contenders, to playoff fodder, to even - gasp - a lottery team.
Dirk Nowitzki has finally rebounded after an awful first two months. Jason Kidd has started making a few three-pointers. Jason Terry goes from clutch to infuriating it seems every other fourth quarter. Rodrigue Beaubois seemingly can only take two steps forward if he then takes another step back. Shawn Marion remains a candidate for Defensive Player of the Year, but his offense has almost hit rock bottom.
There's an elite level defense muddled with a frustrating offense of missed jumpers, off-target passes and stale ball movement.
There's Lamar Odom. Yikes.
But there's also a championship contender, buried deep beneath the injuries and inconsistency. There's still small hope that if Dallas regains all of its parts healthy by playoff time, another run could be made. It's even more improbable then last years' but, alas, let us dream.
The Heat? They've followed script since that December day. They've rolled over teams by converting turnovers and rebounds into points better then anyone. They rush ball handlers on the pick and roll like a pack of lions circling around a weakened gazelle. There's ball movement in the fourth quarter now. LeBron James is perhaps having the best individual season of any player in the modern era. Their point guard rotation is inexperienced but quicker and more athletic. Role players know their roles. It's a terrifying team. They won nine games in a row by 12 or more points. NINE.
Yet, ghosts of the Heat team's past has cropped up. In the recent two-game slide, weaknesses are being reviled that are all too similar to what was shown in June 2011. There's the sticky ball movement and the ability to take advantage of their aggressive defense with an extra pass. Same things the 2011 Dallas Mavericks did to the Heat in six games last year.
Now both teams face off tonight for the first time since that Christmas showdown. It's been 95 days. What have we learned?
Not much. Except for the Mavericks, there's still a chance. And that's all that really matters.