To get another shot at LeBron James, the San Antonio Spurs may have to go through Dirk Nowitzki, then Dwight Howard and James Harden, and finally Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

Survive all that, and maybe they can avenge last year's NBA Finals heartbreak.

"There's definitely that burning desire in the back of your mind that really wants to get back there," Spurs guard Patty Mills said.

They get started on Sunday, right before James and the Miami Heat begin what they hope is a run to a third straight championship. Miami's path seems much easier, but James' team also appears more vulnerable than the one that was an overwhelming favorite in last year's playoffs.

Maybe that was boredom, though. Count on the Heat to pick it up now.

"This is why we're all here," Heat forward Shane Battier said. "The regular season is great and all, but this is the fun part. You wake up and you're excited for the challenge of the playoffs."

It begins on Saturday with four games: The top-seeded Indiana Pacers host the Atlanta Hawks, and the Brooklyn Nets visit the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference, while the West series openers include the Golden State Warriors at the Los Angeles Clippers, and the Oklahoma City Thunder against the Memphis Grizzlies.

On Sunday, No. 1 overall seed San Antonio opens against the Dallas Mavericks, right before Miami welcomes the Charlotte Bobcats. Washington at Chicago, and Houston hosting Portland round out the action.

The finals came to a thrilling conclusion last year, with the Heat rallying from a five-point deficit in the last 28 seconds of regulation to win Game 6. They went on to take a tight Game 7, helped when Tim Duncan missed over Battier from point-blank range, as San Antonio fell to its first loss in five NBA Finals appearances.

Many thought that was the last chance for the Spurs' core of Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Instead, San Antonio won a league-high 62 games in perhaps the franchise's finest all-around season.

Even the Spurs are impressed with the way they left disappointment behind, but all that matters now is what's ahead.

"We are No. 1 overall and can't be better than that. But it doesn't mean anything," Ginobili said. "The playoffs start from scratch."

And it starts against a Dallas team the Spurs have beaten nine straight times.

"Eventually," Dallas star Dirk Nowitzki said, "we will win one."

Miami lost 14 of its final 25 games, often while playing without Dwyane Wade, and finished two games behind the Pacers. Former NBA coach Jeff Van Gundy picks Indiana to win the East, in part because the Heat aren't as intimidating as they were a year ago.

"They have a lot of guys who are not in their prime right now and their ability to consistently play well individually is just not there," Van Gundy said on Thursday during a conference call. "If they didn't have some of those health issues, they'd be the favorite."

If another Spurs-Heat finals happen again, San Antonio would get the decisive game at home this time — though that may not even come into play if the Spurs have to face either the Rockets or Thunder, who both went 4-0 against them.

Every series in the West could be a slugfest, which would make the playoffs no different than the regular season. The East has a sub-.500 Atlanta team along with postseason novices such as Charlotte and Washington, potentially making things easier for the Heat and Pacers.

But Toronto, Chicago and Brooklyn all compiled better records since Jan. 1 than Indiana and Miami, and will try to prevent the Eastern Conference finals matchup that's been expected since November.

The Spurs have been hoping for another finals shot ever since walking off the court in Miami where they were so close to victory in Game 6 that workers had already begun preparations for the celebration.

"We could have easily fell in a hole and let last year's loss kill us," Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard said. "But we got back mentally together and trying to get the same goal accomplished."


AP Sports Writers Tim Reynolds in Miami, Tom Withers in Cleveland, and freelance writer Raul Dominguez in San Antonio contributed to this report.


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