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In the end, top seeds advance to NBA conference finals after wild start to the playoffs

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OKLAHOMA CITY - After a wild start to the NBA playoffs — dramatic Game 7s, overtime games — the league's post-season has returned to normal.

The top seeds in the East and West have advanced to the conference finals.

The two-time defending champion Miami Heat have been the most dominant team in the post-season, losing just once. Meanwhile, top-seeded and wildly unpredictable Indiana has staggered into the East finals rematch with the Heat, although the Pacers did win five road games to advance.

It took San Antonio seven games to eliminate Dallas in the first round, but then the top-seeded Spurs rolled past Portland in five to advance to the West finals. Oklahoma City rallied from a 3-2 deficit against Memphis, then fought through a dramatic six-game series against the Los Angeles Clippers.

The East finals begin Sunday with Indiana hosting Miami; the West tips off Monday night when OKC travels to San Antonio.

The Pacers have made no secret they were looking forward to rematch with Miami after pushing the Heat to seven games before losing on the road in last year's East final. Oklahoma City beat San Antonio 4-2 in the 2012 West final, and many felt they might have beaten the aging Spurs last year if the teams had met, but Russell Westbrook was injured and the Thunder were eliminated. The Thunder know it will be challenge, but are confident after sweeping San Antonio this year in their four-game regular-season series.

"There aren't really any surprises," San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. "It's the conference finals, and players step up and play well. That's basically what it's all about. Everyone is going to have energy, passion and those sorts of things, but execution for more of those 48 minutes is what it's all about. To make sure that you don't have too many dry possessions offensively, to make sure defensively that everybody is on track and communicating.

"It's the same for both teams, but who will do it more for the 48 minutes. We'll see."

The Heat, led by four-time MVP LeBron James, are looking for their third straight title.

James is averaging 30 points and 7.1 rebounds in the playoffs while shooting 56 per cent from the field. He told Pacers coach Frank Vogel during All-Star weekend that he expected to see him in May, and both teams held up their ends of the deal.

"It's the two best teams in the Eastern Conference," James said. "It's that simple. Both teams defend at a high level, both teams share the ball. Both teams get into the paint, and both teams have a desire to win."

After talking all season about having homecourt in a potential Game 7, they have earned it. But the Pacers haven't played well at home in the playoffs, giving up homecourt advantage in the first round against Atlanta and in the second against Washington. James said none of that matters.

"I don't believe the Pacers who struggled at home will be the team we play on Sunday," James said.

The Pacers believe the challenges they have overcome — self-inflicted or otherwise — have made them a dangerous team.

"We worked so hard to get here," Pacers guard Lance Stephenson said. "The Hawks, the Wizards, they put us through a lot. And we had (the media) talking bad about us, and I think it made us stronger."

The Spurs and the Thunder are both a little banged up.

San Antonio point guard Tony Parker strained his left hamstring in Game 5 against Portland. The Spurs aren't sure what shape the All-Star will be in for the opener

"I'm hopeful that he'll be ready to go," Popovich said Friday. "He's going to stay off it again today and tomorrow. They're going to put him on the treadmill a little bit and a bike and shoot a little bit and see where he's at. So, we'll know more tomorrow."

Oklahoma City's Serge Ibaka hurt his left calf in the third quarter of Game 6 against the Clippers, and the Thunder announced Friday that he is out for the post-season.

"We are obviously disappointed for Serge, as he is a tremendous competitor, and we know how badly he wants to be on the court with his teammates," Thunder executive vice-president and general manager Sam Presti said in a statement.

Still, this shapes up to be an entertaining series: The savvy and wily Spurs trio of Parker, Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili vs. the youthful, talented tandem of Kevin Durant Russell Westbrook.

The Thunder duo has been dominant. Durant averaged 33.2 points against the Clippers and the ultra-athletic Westbrook is averaging 26.6 points, 8.0 rebounds and 8.4 assists in the playoffs. The one-time new kids on the block feel they have become a veteran, battle-tested team. They won twice at Memphis and twice in Los Angeles, and they are confident going into San Antonio.

"We've been together so long, we've grown a lot," Durant said. "Guys have matured through every type of situation and every type of game. That's definitely going to help out, but we have a long ways to go."

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Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter: www.twitter.com/CliffBruntAP

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