By Brad Friedman

DALLAS, June 7 -- Two years ago, Gary Payton and Shaquille O'Neal missed out on an opportunity to win a championship together.

This year, they'll get another shot.

In 2004, the duo suffered a 4-1 series loss to the Pistons as members of the Lakers. When the series began, the Lakers were odds-on favorites to win their fourth title in five years. But their dreams of a dynasty died amid defense, dysfunction and dissension.

On Thursday, the Heat face the Mavericks in Game 1 of the 2006 Finals as Payton and O'Neal begin their quest for redemption.

"Different team, and you know, me and Gary, you know we talk about that all the time," O'Neal said when asked to compare Miami to the 2004 Lakers. "I was the one that convinced him (Payton), to come to Miami. I told him it was sort of my fault that we didn't get it done. "

Kobe Bryant and O'Neal feuded throughout the Lakers' season. Days after the series loss to the Pistons, O'Neal demanded a trade. He was sent to Miami the ensuing offseason.

O'Neal told Payton things would be different in Miami -- and they have been.
Chris Covatta/NBAE/Getty Images

"We just should have done things different and we didn't," O'Neal reminisced. "So, you know, that was just my way to let him (Payton) know that it won't ever happen again, if you come join me."

Payton, who is still looking for his first ring after Finals trips with the Lakers and Seattle, signed a deal with the Heat in September, citing "good chemistry here, predominately because of Shaq." And it appears that O'Neal stayed true to his promise about making sure the mistakes of the past didn't repeat themselves.

"There's a big difference," Payton said at Wednesday's Finals media availability. "You have different attitudes, a lot of veterans. There's more of a togetherness. We're more together on this team. Everybody is as one. We're such strong people."

Swingman James Posey agreed that players have been tight-knit from the beginning of the season, with their relationships extending beyond the court. However, the unity didn't always translate into wins. The Heat were below the .500 mark at one point during the first month of the season and sat just 10-10 after a December loss.

"We had that chemistry, but on the court, it was totally different," Posey said. "New guys, some making sacrifices, just trying to get everyone on the same page, and understand what we all brought to the table as a player."

Ironically, the defining moment in Miami's season came in the Heat's lone road game in Dallas Feb. 9, when the Mavericks trounced the Heat, 112-76.

"When we got out butts kicked here during the regular season, we got stomped -- it was a humbling experience," Heat center Alonzo Mourning said. "In the locker room, one of the things Gary asked, was 'Coach, what do we do need to do to get better?'

"He (Riley) was trying to plant that seed of what he needed us to know for us to get to this level. The turning point for us started right here."

And, even though the Heat's uneven play during the regular season has many fans calling the Mavericks the favorites in The Finals, don't expect such doubt to take away from the air of optimism permeating throughout the Miami Heat locker room.

"We've come together at the right time -- I think we're playing our best basketball of the season," guard Jason Williams said. "I feel we're positive, and that's all that matters to us."