MIAMI (AP) -- LeBron James and Dwyane Wade joked often, smiled easily, answered thoughtfully.
A few minutes later, Dirk Nowitzki bounded up to a podium and offered a big "How we doin!" to the assembled media.
You'd never know only one of them is a "good guy."
Less than a year after solidifying their place as the NBA's villains with their high-profile partnership last summer, James, Wade and the Miami Heat are in the NBA finals against the Dallas Mavericks and Nowitzki, being portrayed as a sort of anti-James for sticking with his home team instead of taking the easy way out and going elsewhere for a better shot at a title.
And if you hated the theatrics of last summer, the light shows, pep rally, and everything else Miami did to celebrate winning the championship of July, better look away. The Heat are just four wins from the first of several titles that many predicted when James bolted Cleveland for South Florida.
The way it happened bothered plenty, but James only cares about the result.
"You know, we've got a lot of flack this year, mostly because of myself. And we've tried to use that as motivation every day we get on the basketball court," James said Monday. "But just play the game of basketball. That's all we can do is play the game of basketball at a high level. Play Miami Heat basketball."
Five years after Wade largely overwhelmed the Mavericks by himself to win the Heat's first championship, the teams arrive at Game 1 of the rematch Tuesday through decidedly different constructions. The Heat essentially sacrificed seasons for salary-cap space, making the playoffs through Wade's greatness but with no realistic chance of winning. But the gamble paid off in July, when James and Chris Bosh agreed to come and Wade committed to stay, giving Miami the Nos. 1, 2 and 3 players on perhaps the greatest free-agency list in NBA history.
Nowitzki's name was on it, too, and he even said he would have listened if had James and Wade tried to recruit him. His preference was to remain in Dallas, as long as owner Mark Cuban would do what it takes to give the big German another shot at a ring.
"Ultimately, that's where my heart was at. I almost felt like we had unfinished business after '06," Nowitzki said. "Had a great meeting with Mark there, free agency. All I needed was reassurance that he was going to keep going and keep building around this team, and keep putting all his resources for us to hopefully be up there one day. We're here again at the big stage. Hopefully we can turn it around this year and finish strong."
With reliable role players such as Jason Kidd, Jason Terry and Shawn Marion but no defined second scorer, the Mavericks arrived in the postseason as an afterthought, maybe even a first-round upset loser to Portland. Instead, a stunning sweep of the Lakers in the second round was followed by Nowitzki's spectacular play against Oklahoma City in the Western Conference finals, making the Mavs the last hope for the Heat haters who wanted Boston or Chicago to humble Miami.
"We are facing a very tough team, a very good team with a bunch of closers and leaders. And so we've got to just go from there and bring our best game," Nowitzki said. "But we as players, we're not really worried about who are the good guys or the bad guys, what the fans want. That's not going to matter to us, anyhow."
Nowitzki believed the Heat were the favorites "on paper" last summer, but things changed by the time they met twice in the first two months of the season. Dallas beat Miami both times -- the Mavs have won the last 14 regular-season meetings -- as the Heat stumbled to a 9-8 start amid speculation coach Erik Spoelstra could be fired, and criticism that James' and Wade's styles couldn't work together.
The Heat have it all figured out now: James and Wade alternating big shots in the clutch, Bosh grasping his role as the third scorer, key reserves Udonis Haslem and Mike Miller getting healthy at just the right time after nearly season-long injuries.
So the Heat could win, like it or not. And they're aware the more likely answer is not.
Wade was briefly the NBA's brightest star in 2006, when he averaged 34.7 points to lead the Heat back from a 2-0 deficit to beat the Mavs in six games. A second ring could elevate him to a second level -- or it could be diminished because he needed James and Bosh to get it.
"Only thing I care about is winning. That's all I care about," Wade said. "Whatever you guys want to decide to put me or talk about me, that's where I'll be. The biggest thing is to be a champion."
Wade said he was "blessed" to win a ring so early in his career, knowing this series is loaded with players who have been chasing one for more than a decade. Kidd reached the finals in consecutive years with the New Jersey Nets and figured he'd get another chance with the Nets or much sooner with the Mavericks. He's finally back -- the oldest of seven players on the Dallas roster born in the 1970s.
"You have great teams in this league like the Lakers and the Celtics and San Antonio, who were all winning championships. It didn't work out," he said. "But now we're here. And hopefully we can find a way to win a championship."
James had only once chance and his Cavaliers were quickly swept aside by the Spurs. That was back in 2007, a small-market matchup that drew the lowest TV ratings ever for the finals.
That won't be the case now.
The Heat's free-agency score brought unprecedented attention to the NBA's offseason, a new wave of fans to a sport that needs them with a labor crisis looming when this series is over.
People may not like the Heat, but they can't stop watching.
"It's probably going to get the highest-rated finals, maybe ever. Just because of what they were assembled to do, and then the team that we have, I think it makes for great TV," Terry said.
Brian Mahoney can be reached at http://www.twitter.com/Briancmahoney
(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)