The games come fast and furious once the compressed, 66-game NBA schedule kicks off on Christmas Day. The Dallas Mavericks will play four games in the season's first six days and things really don't let up until the All-Star break in late February.
In search of the Mavs' top five anticipated games, well, the search for No. 1 is obvious. Merry Christmas everyone. But, before we get to that mystery game, let's start the list from the bottom and work our way up.
Drum roll, please...
No. 5: Mavs at Oklahoma City Thunder, Dec. 29
The Mavs have had two in-state rivals for a long time, but neither the Houston Rockets nor the San Antonio Spurs are as geographically close to Dallas as the Oklahoma City Thunder. The former Seattle SuperSonics were awful when they first arrived in OKC and the fact that they still play in the Northwest Division hasn't fostered much of a rivalry feel -- until now. They always say you need bad blood in the playoffs to start a good rivalry and Thunder center Kendrick Perkins took care of that in the opening seconds of the Western Conference finals. The matchup between one of the oldest teams in the league with a veteran star in Dirk Nowitzki against one of the youngest with up-and-coming superstar Kevin Durant should be heated and especially so in the raucous college-like atmosphere in OKC.
No. 4: Mavs vs. whichever team lands Tyson Chandler
Mavs fans swoon at the sight of a competent center (i.e. Brendan Haywood), so when one comes along that lifts the entire franchise the way Tyson Chandler did, well, it can quickly become a full-blown love affair. Too bad for Mavs fans that the Dallas brain-trust appears set to save cash now in hopes of making a free-agent splash next summer, and Chandler appears uninterested in taking less money to come back and defend the title that he played such a key role in bringing to North Texas. So, it will be mighty interesting to see (and hear) the reaction of Mavs fans when the 7-foot-1 Chandler comes to the American Airlines Center for the first time with his new team.
No. 3: Mavs at Miami Heat, March 29
Every team says it wants to win a championship on hits home floor and do it in front of their fans. But, there's got to be something pretty sweet about doing it on enemy turf, too. And in the case of the Mavs exacting revenge on Dwyane Wade in Miami, the Mavs might have actually preferred to party on Wade's dance floor after he celebrated the title at a deflated American Airlines Center five years earlier. Jason Terry recently said that the Heat rank as the Mavs' biggest rival behind the San Antonio Spurs, so this late March matchup will have special meaning for the defending champs.
No. 2: Mavs at Los Angeles Lakers, Jan. 16
For the first time in, um, forever(?), Dallas will bring a well-deserved swagger to Tinseltown after its impressive four-game sweep of Kobe Bryant and the defending champion Lakers in the second round of the playoffs. The last time the Mavs played in L.A., Corey Brewer stunned the Lakers with a tornado-like eight minutes in the third quarter to spark a Dallas rally from down 16 to win. In Game 2, J.J. Barea took over the game with a huge game and Jason Kidd locked up Bryant late to give Dallas the improbable 2-0 lead that left the Lakers frustrated and unquestionably broken. Returning to the site of the crime should be a rare good feeling for the Mavs in L.A.
No. 1: Mavs vs. Miami Heat, Dec. 25
OK, so the Mavs won't get their rings for Christmas, but big deal. They will raise the 2010-11 championship banner to the rafters with their old friends watching the whole thing (unless Heat coach Erik Spoelstra keeps his club in the locker room). This NBA Finals rematch to open the season is one positive outcome of the lockout. Expect plenty of signs in the crowd dissing LeBron James for his -- sniffle, sniffle, cough, cough -- disappearing act in the fourth quarters of those championship games. It should be loud and proud inside the American Airlines Center. We'll see if the intensity on the floor can match that of the crowd during the banner-raising ceremony after the prolonged lockout and short training camps.