Three months ago, the Miami Heat and the Dallas Mavericks squared off in a season-opening, Christmas Day battle between the two teams that met in the NBA Finals last June.
The Heat won that first contest 105-94, but the final score isn't very indicative of how the game actually went. Miami led by as much as 35 that afternoon, and coasted to an easy victory thanks to the efforts of LeBron James and Dwyane Wade, who combined for 63 points.
With three-quarters of the season in the books, the two teams meet tomorrow for the final time this year, barring a rematch in the Finals. Neither squad has been dominant as of late, but both teams will assuredly be on their respective games in front of a national audience.
Miami is looking to break a two-game losing streak, while Dallas desperately needs a win to keep pace in the crowded Western Conference playoff hunt.
The Mavericks have won 17 of the past 19 regular season games between the two teams, but with the Heat so dominant at home this year (20-2 at the American Airlines Arena, best in the NBA), Dirk Nowitzki and company definitely have their work cut out for them.
So as we get ready for Heat vs. Mavericks, let's take a look at the position-by-position battles between the two teams.
Jason Kidd doesn't shoot particularly well, nor is he incredibly fast, but he's an extremely crafty point guard, even at the age of 38. Kidd is more of a game manager these days—as opposed to his prime when he was a constant triple-double threat—but he always seems to be in the right position for a key basket or steal when it matters the most.
Mario Chalmers isn't terribly productive, but with his exceptional three-point shooting (41.5 percent from beyond the arc this season), he prevents defenses from collapsing on Miami's "Big 3." But while he's held the fort down for Miami, he isn't the steadying hand at the point that Kidd is.
If the Heat choose to run, then Kidd will have trouble keeping up with Miami's quick point guards. But if Dallas can dictate the tempo of the game, expect Kidd to have a significant impact on Thursday night.
Vince Carter has scored a total of 23 points in his last four games, and doesn't appear to be nearly the same player that he was earlier in the season. So while Carter will start the game on Wade, expect Jason Terry and Roddy Beaubois to log a lot of the minutes at shooting guard.
Even in the midst of what may be his worst statistical season since his rookie year, Dwyane Wade is still one of the league's most dominant talents. Wade may have to work a bit harder to get his shots these days, but you can pencil him in for 22 points, five rebounds and five assists virtually every night.
Wade has only scored 30 points or more once in the past 18 games for the Heat; with a banged-up LeBron James, expect Wade to be more aggressive offensively against the Mavs.
Even with a dislocated ring finger, LeBron James is still one of the two best basketball players on the planet. That said, he's had his fair share of "struggles" recently: James is averaging 18.4 PPG over his last five games, more than eight points off of his season average.
But even a slumping James gets higher marks than a solid Shawn Marion, who has put together a decent campaign this year (11.1 PPG, 7.0 RPG). And while it's highly unlikely that he'll get the best of his one-on-one matchup, Marion's work on the glass just might be the key to a Dallas victory.
The Mavs could pull out a much-needed road win if they can focus their defensive efforts on James. Of course, an "average" game out of James these days isn't all that far removed from a triple-double, so there's that.
This is closest battle between the two teams, as both Dirk Nowitzki and Chris Bosh are perennial All-Stars who are capable of taking over games at times.
After a sub-par start to the season, Nowitzki has been strong of late, having scored 27 points or more eight times in the month of March. He only grabbed five rebounds when the two teams first met, but with double-doubles in his last two outings, don't expect a repeat performance.
Bosh had a terrible game against the Mavericks back in December: four points, seven rebounds, and five fouls in 24 minutes. He obviously can play at a much higher level than that, and he'll need to for Miami to sweep the season series.
Ian Mahinmi starts at center for the Mavericks, but since Rick Carlisle frequently likes to go with a smaller lineup, Mahinmi doesn't log a great deal of minutes at the 5 spot. He's not going to impress anyone with his offensive game, but he grabs rebounds and is a solid presence in the middle.
All of the pundits who have been clamoring for the Heat to acquire a top-flight center are sorely misguided. According to Hoopdata, the Miami Heat have had the best defensive field-goal percentage at the rim for the past two seasons. One of the main reasons for that? Joel Anthony.
Much like Mahinmi, don't expect very many low-post moves out of Anthony, especially considering that he hasn't reached double figures in scoring all season. But the 7-foot UNLV product is a very willing and able defender who will discourage the Mavs' wing players from taking reckless drives down the lane.
The Mavericks' reserves average 40.8 points per game, third-best in the NBA. Jason Terry—who averages 15.2 points per game—is the clear star of Dallas' second unit, and is also a strong candidate to take home the NBA's Sixth Man of the Year Award this season.
Roddy Beaubois and Brandan Wright have proven to be effective contributors in a backup role, and when Lamar Odom's game is on, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year Award-winner is one of the more versatile players in the NBA.
The Heat, meanwhile, are heavily reliant on James, Wade and Bosh to provide their scoring: Miami's backups only average 24.3 points per game, third-worst in the league. Norris Cole and Mike Miller provide some offense off of the bench, while Shane Battier and Udonis Haslem are starting-caliber forwards for their defensive intensity alone.