NBA CONFERENCE FINALS PREVIEW

No. 1 Warriors vs. No. 2 Rockets 

NBA Western Conference Finals

DEEP IMPACT: The long balls should be flying in this series. The Warriors (first) and Rockets (tied for second with the Hawks) are the postseason leaders in three-pointers made per game — a continuation of both teams’ regular-season performances. Houston set an NBA single-season record for made three-pointers with 933. Golden State wasn’t too far behind, finishing with 883, the third most in league history. (The 2012-13 Knicks are second with 891.) Stephen Curry broke his own record for threes in a season with 286. Teammate Klay Thompson was second with 239, and Houston’s Harden (208) and Trevor Ariza (194) ranked fourth and seventh, respectively.

CELEBRATING THE PAST … AND THE PRESENT: Both teams are celebrating notable anniversaries of their most recent NBA championships. The Warriors last won the title 40 years ago with a four-game sweep of the Washington Bullets in the 1975 NBA Finals. The Rockets, meanwhile, haven’t lifted the Larry O’Brien Trophy since winning the second of two straight championships in 1995 with their own sweep, against the Magic. NBA TV will commemorate the 20-year anniversary of Houston’s back-to-back titles with Clutch City, a documentary to be televised during the NBA Finals on Monday, June 8, at 9 p.m. ET.

ROCKET RELAUNCH: The Warriors swept the season series 4-0, but the teams haven’t met since Jan. 21 and the Rockets look much different now. Eight-time All-Star center Dwight Howard missed two of those four meetings and appeared in only 41 regular-season games, but he has re-emerged in the playoffs with averages of 17.2 points, 13.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks. Terrence Jones, Houston’s opening-night starting power forward, was sidelined for all four matchups with Golden State, but during the playoffs he has joined Josh Smith in forming an effective combo at the four as the Rockets compensate for Donatas Motiejunas’ absence. The backcourt is reworked, too, with Jason Terry and February addition Pablo Prigioni splitting time at point guard in place of Patrick Beverley.

No. 1 Hawks vs. No. 2 Cavaliers 

NBA Eastern Conference Finals

PRESSURE COOKER: In the last regular-season meeting between the two teams on March 6 — a 106-97 Atlanta victory to clinch the season series 3-1 — the Hawks forced LeBron James into nine turnovers with a defensive scheme that put constant pressure on the four-time MVP. DeMarre Carroll drew the bulk of the assignment and likened himself to a gnat, helping limit James to 18 points on 5-for-13 shooting, James’ least productive performance in three games against the Hawks. Atlanta has won five straight games against the Cavaliers at Philips Arena dating back to 2012. James is looking to become the first player to appear in five straight NBA Finals since four Celtics did it in the mid-1960s.

BENCH PRESS: As the starting five goes, so go the Hawks. Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, Carroll, Paul Millsap and Al Horford are as closely associated as any starting five in recent memory, even jointly winning Eastern Conference Player of the Month honors in January. But, don’t sleep on Atlanta’s bench. Second-year guard Dennis Schröder has been on the floor in late-game situations throughout the playoffs. Defensive ace Kent Bazemore has given the Hawks strong minutes, making up for the loss of Thabo Sefolosha. Mike Scott and Pero Antic are capable shooting bigs with good mobility. The most surprising contribution has come from second-year forward Mike Muscala, who over the last four games is averaging 6.5 points in 13.5 minutes.

POINT OF ATTACK: Over the last three games of the Washington series, Teague kicked into high gear, averaging 20.0 points on 50.0 percent shooting. He’s still only shooting 39.9 percent from the field in the postseason, but his game is on the upswing. On the flip side, Kyrie Irving is questionable for Game 1 as he continues to deal with tendinitis in his left knee and a strained right foot. He played 12 minutes and scored six points in Cleveland’s Game 6 win over the Bulls to advance. The Cavaliers will continue to depend on Matthew Dellavedova, who averaged 8.3 points and 3.7 assists in 23.3 minutes against Chicago.

NBA Conference Finals info

NBA Playoffs LogoFRESH BLOOD: Competitive balance is strong as new teams are making a run at the Larry O’Brien Trophy. The top two seeds from both conferences have advanced to the final four for the second year in a row. The 2015 conference finals, however, consist of four different teams after all four conference finalists from 2014 failed to reach the second round for the first time since the NBA expanded the playoff field to 16 teams in 1983-84. None of the remaining teams has won a championship in at least two decades, if at all. (None plays in one of the league’s five biggest markets either.)

Houston is the most recent champion of the four, having won the second of back-to-back titles 20 years ago, in 1995. The Warriors have gone twice as long without winning a championship, their last coming in 1975. The Hawks’ one title came in 1958, when the franchise played in St. Louis. And the Cavaliers have never won a championship, though they are the only one of the four to appear in the conference finals since 1997 (Cleveland won the East in 2007 and lost in the conference finals in 2009).

Here is the complete breakdown of the four teams:

Last Conference Finals            Last NBA Finals                      Last Championship

HOU                            1997                                         1995                                         1995

GSW                            1976                                         1975                                         1975

ATL                             1970#                                       1961*                                       1958*

CLE                             2009                                         2007                                         None

#Lost Western Division Finals

*Franchise played in St. Louis

FRESH BLOOD, PART II: The coaches are new to this stage, too. The four coaches have a combined nine years of NBA head-coaching experience, including six for Houston’s Kevin McHale, who has spent the last four seasons with the Rockets after coaching the Timberwolves for parts of two seasons. Golden State’s Steve Kerr and David Blatt are in their first seasons, while Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer of Atlanta is in his second season after a long stint as a Spurs assistant. If the Warriors and Cavaliers advance, the NBA Finals would feature two first-year coaches for the first time since the league’s first year in 1946-47.

DEEP IMPACT: The final four have relied heavily on the three-point shot both in the regular season and the playoffs. The Rockets set an NBA single-season record for three-pointers made, and the Warriors posted the third-most threes in league history. The Cavaliers tied for third this season in threes and the Hawks were fifth. The top four teams in three-pointers per game during the playoffs happen to be the four conference finalists.

MAKING MOVES …: Cleveland and Houston were two of the most aggressive teams in reshaping their rosters before the trade deadline, with each adding three rotation players. The Cavaliers acquired guards J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert in a trade with the Knicks and obtained center Timofey Mozgov in a trade with the Nuggets. All three are averaging more than 25 minutes per game in the playoffs. Similarly, the Rockets added forwards Josh Smith (as a free agent after his release by Detroit) and Corey Brewer (trade with Minnesota) and guard Pablo Prigioni (trade with New York) during the season. Smith and Brewer have been invaluable during the playoffs, and Prigioni was a huge spark in Houston’s Game 7 victory over the Clippers. It’s safe to say that Cleveland and Houston aren’t playing for a spot in the NBA Finals without in-season moves from general managers David Griffin and Daryl Morey, respectively.

…OR NOT MAKING MOVES: On the other end of the spectrum are the Warriors and Hawks, two teams that rode continuity and internal improvement to the best regular seasons in franchise history. Seven of the top eight players in minutes played for both teams this season are the same as last season. Golden State didn’t pull the trigger on a much-discussed Klay Thompson-for-Kevin Love offseason trade, a decision that has looked savvy as Thompson made his first All-Star team and Draymond Green blossomed into a solid all-around player at Love’s power forward position. Atlanta’s faith in its core has paid massive dividends: Four starters were selected to the All-Star team and the fifth, DeMarre Carroll has been a breakout performer in the playoffs after the best regular season of his career.

STAR POWER: The top three finishers in the MVP race have led their teams to the final four: Golden State’s Stephen Curry, Houston’s James Harden and Cleveland’s LeBron James. This is the first time since 2000-01 that the top three in the MVP voting are all in the conference finals.

2009 DRAFT REVISISTED: The conference semifinals inspired talk about how a “re-draft” of 2009 would look because the Clippers’ Blake Griffin was the first pick, the Rockets’ James Harden was the third pick and the Warriors’ Stephen Curry was the seventh pick. That talk will continue now that Harden and Curry are squaring off in the conference finals. But the 2009 draft also produced some steals who will be on display in these series. Atlanta’s Jeff Teague, who has emerged as an All-Star point guard, was drafted 19th in 2009. Atlanta’s DeMarre Carroll, who is averaging 17.1 points in the playoffs, was drafted 27th. And Houston’s Patrick Beverley, a top defender who has an outside shot to return from injury in this round, was drafted 42nd.

Vishnu Ravi Shankar
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