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In season of peace, NBA season opens with grudge match

By Joseph Goodman, McClatchy Newspapers

Merry Christmas, basketball fans. It’s time to unwrap the NBA.

After a long and frustrating lockout that threatened to alienate its fans, the NBA begins its 2010-11 season Sunday — nearly two months behind schedule — the same way it finished the last one. The Heat’s visit to Dallas is the opening day’s marquee game, a rematch of last season’s Finals and the perfect starting point for Year 2 of the Heat’s Big 3 .

Although Dallas’ roster has undergone some changes, the feelings between these teams remain the same. Few openers in Heat franchise history have carried this much gravitas. The beginning of the game will feel like an extension of Game 7 of the Finals .

“It’s a little different for us,” Heat co-captain Dwyane Wade said.

The Mavericks will raise their championship banner moments before the game. Emotions will be palpable.

The Heat insists there is “no revenge factor,” as the teams’ other co-captain, forward Udonis Haslem, said Friday. Still, an undercurrent of something raw remains.

“I’m sure they celebrated this summer, and now it’s our time to try to make our own legacy this season,” Haslem said.

For Haslem, this Christmas Day game will be important for other reasons as well. Injured for most of last season, Haslem, who has undergone three surgeries in the past year, is now healthy and ready to contribute to the team in a way he could not during last season’s championship series.

“You take health for granted because you wake up every morning and get up out of bed and you come to practice like you’re entitled, but, really, we’re not,” Haslem said. “So, to be healthy is a blessing, and I’m thankful and I’m hoping I can stay healthy and take advantage and help my guys.”

Health issues

Although Haslem is fully healthy, some of the Heat’s other key reserves are not. Shane Battier, the team’s most significant free agent addition, is questionable for the season opener because of a strain of his quadriceps muscle, which he sustained during the beginning of training camp. He listed his status as “a strong maybe” on Friday.

Battier’s fellow reserve swingman, Mike Miller, won’t suit up. He’s still recovering from hernia surgery. Another void is the absence of Eddie House — the team announced Saturday that he was waived. He had not yet recovered from offseason surgery to his left knee.

Eddy Curry, the Heat’s great hope at the center position, will not play because of a muscle strain in his hip. There was some question whether Curry would even make the Heat’s roster, but it’s now apparent the team has a long-term plan for the former Knicks standout. Curry said he likely will sit out the next one or two weeks before resuming his comeback attempt.

In the meantime, the Heat will begin the season with just one center who has any significant experience. Joel Anthony will start there Sunday, and reserve center Dexter Pittman is expected to contribute significantly for the first time in his career.

With former Dallas center Tyson Chandler now playing for the Knicks, the Mavericks’ frontcourt will rely on Brendan Haywood, who averaged 2.0 points and 3.5 rebounds during the preseason.

Also gone from last season’s team is offensive catalyst J.J. Barea, the minuscule point guard who gave the Heat fits during the Finals. Replacing Barea is veteran reserve Delonte West. Lamar Odom, the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year last season, and Vince Carter were brought in to help offset the losses of Caron Butler and Peja Stojakovic.

Although the Mavericks’ rotation is still in flux, the team’s core — Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Shawn Marion and Jason Terry — remains intact.

“Dirk is still there, J-Kidd is still there, J-Terry is there and a lot of other guys, too, so they definitely have some new pieces with Lamar being there and Vince being there and some other guys that weren’t a part of their team,” Heat forward LeBron James said. “But we’re not playing the names on the back, we’re playing the names on the front and we’re looking forward to it.”

Roster update

The Heat awarded its 14th and 15th roster spots to rookies Terrel Harris and Mickell Gladness on Saturday.

Harris, a 6-4 guard, is a native of Dallas, so Sunday’s season opener will be extra special. A native of Birmingham, Ala., Gladness played his college ball at Alabama A&M in Huntsville, where he set the NCAA record for blocks in a game (16) his junior season.

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