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League ready to give fans their Yuletide gift; Mavs, LeBron, Paul highlight opening slate

In between the Mavericks' party in Miami and the Chris Paul celebration in Los Angeles, business got in the way of basketball.

The lockout came 2 1/2 weeks after the NBA Finals and lasted five months, leaving nobody certain when players and owners would settle so Dallas could begin defending its title -- or LeBron James could resume chasing his first.

"We were way, far, far apart from one another," Knicks forward Carmelo Anthony said.

Others never wavered, insisting the NBA wouldn't waste the momentum it was riding from James' arrival in Miami right through the champagne-soaked Mavericks' departure with the Larry O'Brien trophy.

"I knew we would play," Mavericks owner Mark Cuban wrote in an email. "The commissioner wasn't going to let us miss a season."

He was right. And now back comes the NBA, with Paul on the Clippers, Dwight Howard still on the Magic -- at least for now -- and the belief that the league can regain what it had before the games stopped.

A 66-game schedule was saved, starting with five games on Christmas featuring the kind of story lines that made last season so memorable: a finals rematch; the Knicks' chance to see if Tyson Chandler closes their gap with Boston; Kobe Bryant and the Lakers -- suddenly a potential second-class team in their own arena -- beginning against the Bulls; the Thunder looking to show why they're a finals favorite; and Paul hoping to set up Blake Griffin for a few dunks to open the Clippers' new era.

And it's those things, David Stern believes, that will win back whatever fans were lost during one of the most turbulent times of his tenure.

"I believe that we can. I believe that the enthusiasm for the Christmas Day start, which we agreed to with our players, is exuberant," the commissioner said, noting fans' interest in the compressed free agency period. "The sponsors are literally flocking into our games and activating, our players are raring to go. So we recognize that there will be fans that have to be won back and we're going about that with the open scrimmages, which have been wonderfully received, the special offers and a keen awareness that we have to say I'm sorry [to fans]."

They were there as never before in 2010-11, when arenas were filled to more than 90 percent capacity and the league's three national TV partners all had their most viewers ever. But owners said they nevertheless lost $300 million and locked out the players on July 1 when a new labor deal couldn't be reached before the old one expired.

A new deal was finally ratified on Dec. 9, but before anyone could enjoy it, a new wave of anger rolled in that night. The league, as current owners of the New Orleans Hornets, blocked a trade that would have sent Paul to the Lakers, believing it wasn't a good enough deal for that caliber of player. Eventually he was dealt to the Clippers, who provided the kind of package the league demanded, but not before heavy criticism of Stern and the league office.

If there were any lasting effects, they haven't been recognizable.

The Knicks drew 10,500 fans for an open practice at Madison Square Garden. NBA TV had 509,000 viewers for Paul's Clippers debut, surpassing the first game of Miami's Big Three as the most-watched preseason game in the network's history.

"I'm glad that the focus will be back on the game, back on the teams, back on the superstars that we have in this league and they're ready to go as well," Hall of Famer and ESPN analyst Magic Johnson said. "The fans are back."

The compressed schedule, forcing every team to play on three straight days at least once, will challenge the older teams, so don't pencil in the Celtics or Lakers for their usual success just yet. And it reinforces why the Heat and Thunder rank high on the list of title favorites.

Miami was two wins short in its first try with James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, and a title is not only its goal, but the expectation.

"It's a long ways from now, but it's our goal. We didn't come together to make the playoffs or come together to win a playoff series, we came together to win the NBA Finals and that's what it's about," James said. "We just try to have a better result if we happen to get back to that point."

But no guarantees: The NBA's other shortened season, when 50 games were played in 1999, ended with the No. 8 seed Knicks playing for a title.

"I believe there's going to be many, many exciting races and potentially a few surprises," Stern said.