— The Miami Heat went into last season looking to be rock stars.
This time around they're merely seeking to become champions.
The focus misplaced last season, the patience worn thin by season's end, hopes for instant gratification scuttled by the Dallas Mavericks over the final three games of the 2011 NBA finals, the Heat return hungry, but also humbled.
Arrogance has given way to humility. Self-importance has yielded to introspection.
They enter again as favorites.
But not amid boasts of "... not four, not five, not six ...," but rather of an awareness of how elusive even a single championship can be.
"It was harder," power forward Udonis Haslem said, "than we thought it was going to be."
This, of course, is not about Udonis Haslem or Joel Anthony or Mike Miller or Mario Chalmers or newcomer Shane Battier or any of the supporting pieces.
This is, as it has been since that misguided July 2010 night amid smoke and lasers at AmericanAirlines Arena, about LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
It is about being this decade's Big Three, proving they just might be up to the lineage of Bird-McHale-Parish, Magic-Worthy-Kareem, Michael-Scottie-Horace (or Dennis).
And yet, to a degree, this also is completely different from what it was just a year ago, when James tossed powder in the face of Cleveland, when Bosh derided the bad cable north of the border, when Wade went from embraceable 2006 championship hero to Chicago hometown enemy.
That was not merely a season ago, but also a lockout ago.
Now there are new villains, and it has nothing to do with James' vow to attempt to shed that tag.
It has to do with David Stern's hard line during the lockout; a leaked email from Cavaliers owner Dan Gilbert; the hard-line small-market lockout stands from Suns owner Robert Sarver and from Michael Jordan himself, who now oversees the flailing Bobcats.
It has to do with Dwight Howard holding the Magic hostage and Chris Paul having done the same with the Hornets.
Name the top-five trending NBA scoundrels and we're not sure James, Bosh or Wade make the list any longer.
It is a remarkably different NBA world than the one they walked away from on June 12, an exit punctuated by James sitting at the podium and telling us, "At the end of the day, all the people that were rooting on me to fail, at the end of the day they have to wake up tomorrow and have the same life that they had before they woke up today."
Because if it was the same world, if there were no lockout, if Gilbert, Sarver and Jordan hadn't so antagonized amid the labor negotiations, if Howard and Paul hadn't turned the preseason into a referendum against non-elite franchises, then media day at AmericanAirlines Arena would not have attracted, by coach Erik Spoelstra's estimation, only a quarter of the inquiring minds as a year ago.
And if the Heat were still the be-all and end-all of the sports world, half of those who attended that media day, the one ESPN had broadcast live just a year earlier, wouldn't have quickly exited amid word that the Miami Dolphins had just fired their head coach.
The paparazzi have moved on. And while Jon Barry and Rachel Nichols were there to chronicle the start of camp, they didn't move in, as ESPN did at the Heat's camp a year ago at an Air Force base in the Florida panhandle.
By the eighth day of training camp, eight members of the media were the limit of the press core. Counting cameramen.
The Heat's response?
An exhale. A heartfelt exhale that this season might yet be about basketball, and only about basketball.
You can see it in their faces, Spoelstra no longer requiring a platform against the practice-gym wall to be seen by the media, Wade, James and Bosh no longer approaching their interview sessions with an air of apprehension. Not nearly as many in place to try to capture that Twitter, Facebook, YouTube gotcha moment.
And, so, they exhale.
"It's definitely a lot quieter around here right now," James said. "I mean D-Wade was talking before practice how calm it is right now compared to last year. So we're enjoying it, flying under the radar at this point."
It is a tangible lightness.
"I was telling LeBron during practice today, 'Man, it feels good,'" Wade said with a warm smile, the type of geniality often lacking last season. "Last year was a whirlwind.
"It's calm. It helps us just focus on what we need to get better at, focus on each other, not have to worry about a lot of stories being talked about."
Last season ultimately turned into a be-careful-what-you-wish-for season. Bosh, for example, wished for plenty. After toiling north of the border in Toronto for seven seasons, he wanted it all, emerging as a ubiquitous South Beach presence.
"I wanted to play on the big stage," he said.
He just didn't realize how overwhelming that stage could be.
"Things that come with that, if you're ready for 'em or not, it's going to come," he said.
Ultimately, he said it turned into "culture shock."
"I mean," he said, reflecting, "even if you don't realize it, sometimes a lot of attention can be a distraction."
The distractions, of course, aren't all going away. There is a reason the Heat are up first on ABC's national television schedule on Christmas Day, and for more than it being the champion Mavericks' home opener. And there is a reason the home opener against Boston two nights later also will receive national coverage.
"We expected a lot of turmoil and scrutiny last year," Spoelstra said. "Can't say I expected the amount we got. It was a different level.
"There will be some of those moments again."
But now, Spoelstra said, his players, particularly his since-humbled Big Three, are prepared.
"I think our mindset is right where it needs to be," he said. "We certainly got to know each other well, especially when it was uncomfortable. A lot of it carried over. Our guys are very close, very connected."
And yet, also somewhat disconnected.
From the hype.
From the self-promotion.
From the overwhelming media glare that ultimately turned blinding when foresight was needed most.
"Our intention last season was to shut everybody up," Wade said, "and that was not the right intention. Now it is to enjoy the game again."