A year and a half ago, the Dallas Mavericks defeated the Miami Heat in six games in the NBA Finals. The “Big 3” came up short in their first season together, and Dirk Nowitzki was considered by many to be the best player in the league.

Since that time, the two teams have gone in opposite directions.

Miami returned to the Finals last season and LeBron James won his first ever championship. This year, the Heat are, once again, favorites to win it all. They are in first place at 16-6.

Dallas barely made the playoffs last season as the eighth seed, and was swept in the first round of the postseason. Through 25 games, the Mavericks are one game under .500 and currently out of the playoff picture.

The two teams are set to face off Thursday night in Dallas. The game will air at 9:30 p.m. ET on TNT. You can watch a free live stream online with TNT Overtime.

The Mavericks will still be without Nowitzki in the contest. He’s missed all 25 games with a knee injury, though his return doesn’t seem to be far away. On Wednesday, he took part in full-contact drills, and hopes to take the floor shortly after Christmas.

In Nowitzki’s absence, free agent acquisition O.J. Mayo has stepped up to be the team’s best player. He’s averaging 20.6 points per game in his first year with the club. He’ll need to have a big game both offensively and defensively to give Dallas a chance.

Allowing 101.5 points per game, the Mavericks have one of the worst defenses in the league. They’ve given up more points than they’ve scored, and might have a difficult time changing that against the Heat. Miami is fourth in the league, scoring an average of 103 points each night.

James has been the catalyst for Miami’s explosive offense. He’s in the midst of another MVP caliber season, putting up 25.2 points, a career-high 8.5 rebounds and 6.9 assists per game.

It’s almost a guarantee that James will score at least 20 points on Thursday. He’s done so in every one of Miami’s 22 games, becoming the first player to accomplish that feat since Karl Malone in the 1989-1990 season.

Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh have been the benefactors of James’s high level of play. They’re averaging a combined 37.7 points per game.

Dallas’s best chance to pull off the upset will probably be to outscore Miami in a shootout. The Heat are 16th in the league in points allowed, though they have improved of late. The defending champs haven’t given up 100 points in their last five games.

Miami's lack of defense has been questioned of late. ESPN recently reported how the Heat have failed to play the level of defense that won them a title in 2011-2012.

Even on the road, the Heat are decided favorites. The betting line has them giving the Mavericks 5.5 points.

Prediction: The Mavericks haven’t proven that they can consistently beat winning teams, going 2-9 against opponents with record above .500. With their porous defense, it’s hard for them to compete against teams that can score. Miami is built to give Dallas a lot of trouble, and could win this one going away.

Predicted Score: Miami 111, Dallas 98