Heat, Lakers off to eye-opening starts

The NBA kicked off its regular season Tuesday night with two games featuring the two teams most of us expect to dominate their respective conferences: The Miami Heat in a win over a very tough Boston Celtics team, and the Los Angeles Lakers in an awkward loss to a less-than-formidable Dallas Mavericks team.

All the qualifiers apply. It’s early, a single game lacks enough information needed to make any firm assessments, and many things can happen going forward.

But still.

One day in and it’s hard not to see that the Heat are the culmination of all that talent and expectation that defined and shaped them the past two seasons; and that the Lakers are trying to harness and control that same mixture — in fits and starts, featuring a now noteworthy 0-8 preseason, with discombobulated chemistry. But with a squad so talented, the Lakers clearly are capable of going from fitful to dominating once these players do coalesce.

The key to assessing the Heat and Lakers this season, and the possibility they’ll meet in the Finals come June, probably will hinge not on the fact they’re different teams but that they’re at vastly different places in their timelines.

The Heat’s 120-107 win over Boston came against a very good opponent because after two years creating a culture, identity and ease capable of maximizing that massive talent they’re a force to be reckoned with.

The reconfigured Celtics, minus Ray Allen, looked excellent. They out-rebounded Miami 41-36. They had five players who scored in double digits. Rajon Rondo flashed all the spunk and grace of a point guard you expect to dish out 13 assists against the league’s best defensive team and then clothesline Dwyane Wade. Paul Pierce still has it. Courtney Lee looked excellent. Avery Bradley has yet to return from injury, and Jeff Green has yet to return to form after missing all of last season with an aortic aneurysm.

The Celtics could end up making a very good case that they’ll shape up into one of the best teams in the NBA.

And despite all that, the Heat are and will remain the dominant team out East.

They flashed it all night, that they are every bit what they were last season … but better. LeBron James is LeBron James, but now with the ease and confidence of a transcendent player who just got his ring. Wade and his 29 points reminded everyone, if anyone required a reminder, that he’s still a star. Chris Bosh dropped 19 points and hauled in 10 rebounds. Mario Chalmers has matured into a very, very good point guard. And, my goodness, the depth.

Shane Battier started Tuesday — he hit two threes for good measure and did all the little things you don’t see in box scores — meaning Ray Allen and the 19 points he dropped on his former team came from the bench. Allen as the sixth man makes Miami much better. It also means guys like Udonis Haslem, Mike Miller, Norris Cole (with his now strong 3-point shot) and a rejuvenated Rashard Lewis (who looked remarkable with 10 points) offer more depth than seems fair.

The ruling question this season will focus on who can beat the Heat in a seven-game series. The Celtics? They are the East’s second-best team, but I doubt it. The Indianapolis Pacers? They have the size and gave Miami a good fight last year, but it’s unlikely. The Thunder? Maybe, but with James Harden now a Houston Rocket it seems less likely than last season.

That leaves the Lakers. They have size, including Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol. They have Kobe Bryant. They have Steve Nash. Heck, they have four future Hall of Famers. They have the mettle to match up with this Heat team.

What it turns out the Lakers don’t have, as telegraphed by their preseason and Tuesday night regular-season debut, is any chemistry. Not yet.

Right now, they don’t have enough mileage together — enough shared history — to easily and consistently live up to the hype. The Heat certainly would understand this. They went through it two years ago, just as the Lakers probably will go through it in the near future.

Yes, yes, yes — it’s just one game. Of course.

But this wasn’t exactly a powerhouse Dallas Mavericks team that won 99-91. Dirk Nowitizki and Chris Kaman were hurt and Delonte West was released this week. The Mavs threw out a starting lineup of castoffs and a tandem at center of Brandon Wright and Eddy Curry, who combined to go toe to toe with Howard and notch 21 points and nine rebounds.

When Lakers coach Mike Brown says that they need to stop Eddy Curry from dominating them in the paint — Eddy Curry! — something is seriously wrong.

The Lakers, like the Heat two years ago, will need time. Their starting lineup was a sight to see before tip-off. It was often a sight to look away from afterward. Kobe scored 22 on 11-of-14 shooting, Gasol added 23 and Howard contributed 19 points and 10 rebounds. But things were off.

The Lakers’ pick-and-roll spacing was poor, their pick-and-roll defense was ugly and their free-throw shooting (12-of-31) was abysmal. Nash mustered just four assists, and all night Los Angeles looked out of sorts.

It is, as mentioned earlier, very early. There’s no reason to panic. But the theme of the season was still on display during this season’s first night.

Tuesday showcased the two interlocking storylines that could define this NBA season: Watching a Heat team wholly comfortable, in control and bonded by a championship, and watching an equally talented Lakers team trying to take all its separate parts and quickly forge them into a championship team.

You can follow Bill Reiter on Twitter or email him at foxsportsreiter@gmail.com.