NBA Playoffs: Top 5 Storylines for the Conference Finals

By Vincent Frank

Then there were four. With the conference finals about to kick off around the NBA world, this year presents us with a bunch of new stars ready to be born.

The Golden State Warriors last appeared in the Western Conference Finals back in 1976. Meanwhile, the Atlanta Hawks last accomplished this feat back in 1970. And while both the Cleveland Cavaliers and Houston Rockets have made it this far in the not-so-distant past, neither team has been a mainstay in the NBA’s version of the Final Four.

With new players and new teams finding themselves in the spotlight, there are plenty of storylines entering the conference finals.

1. Top Two MVP Choices go Head-to-Head out West

Courtesy of USA Today Sports: James Harden has to play at an elite level for the Rockets to advance.

Courtesy of USA Today Sports: James Harden has to play at an elite level for the Rockets to advance.

Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry outlasted James Harden of the Houston Rockets for the MVP during the regular season. Whoever plays better basketball in this tremendous matchup will likely lead his team to the NBA Finals. And while we all know that the MVP is for regular season play only, Curry can prove naysayers wrong here.

Harden and Curry may not go up against one another, but both are going to be looked at to provide instant offense. In four regular season outings between these two teams—all victories by the Warriors—Curry vastly outplayed Harden. The Warriors guard averaged 25.8 points, 6.5 rebounds and 8.3 assists per game in those four games. He also shot 58 percent from the field and 52 percent from three-point range. As it relates to Harden, he struggled big time. The shooting guard averaged 25.3 points while shooting 41 percent from the field and just 24 percent from beyond the arc. It is, however, important to note that Harden didn’t have Dwight Howard for two of those games. With his big man back, Harden is going to need to up his play if the Rockets are to pull off a major upset here.

2. LeBron James Going for Fifth Consecutive Finals Appearance

The King made it to the NBA Finals in each of the four seasons he was with the Miami Heat, winning two titles in the process. He also led these Cavaliers to the Finals back in 2006-2007. Not only would James match Michael Jordan with six Finals appearances with a series win against the Atlanta Hawks, he would also find himself in elite company with five straight Finals appearances. That would surpass both Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, who had four consecutive appearances during their Hall of Fame careers.

This past series against the Chicago Bulls saw James average 26.2 points, 11.0 rebounds and 8.8 assists per outing. A repeat performance here, and the best player in basketball will once again find himself playing for the championship.

3. The Golden State Warriors Historical Run

Courtesy of USA Today Sports: Led by league MVP Stephen Curry, the Warriors have been historically good.

Courtesy of USA Today Sports: Led by league MVP Stephen Curry, the Warriors have been historically good.

Consider this: Golden State is 8-2 during the postseason, and its dropped the team’s overall winning percentage. Entering the conference finals, Steve Kerr’s squad possesses a 75-17 record, postseason included. That’s good enough for a .815 winning percentage. Owners of home-court advantage, the Warriors are also 43-3 (.935 winning percentage) at Oracle on the year.

Looking specifically at the postseason, six of the Warriors eight wins have come by double digits. The team is also winning its playoff games by an average of 12.1 points per outing. Making things more interesting, Golden State won the final three games of its semifinal series against the Memphis Grizzlies by an average of 16.7 points per game, including by an average of 15 points in the final two games in Memphis. Considering the Grizzlies were 31-10 at home during the regular year, that’s an amazing feat.

Golden State finished the regular year tied for the sixth-best record in NBA history. If it’s able to continue this domination and earn the championship, Kerr’s squad will go down as one of the greatest teams in Association history. Just think about that for a second.

4. Can Team Basketball Overcome Greatness in the East?

Courtesy of USA Today Images

Courtesy of USA Today Sports: Can James shoulder the load against a deep Hawks team?

With Kevin Love out of action and Kyrie Irving banged up in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, LeBron James went into domination mode to carry Cleveland past the Chicago Bulls. While there’s no question that Chicago is one of the best teams in the NBA, Atlanta presents a much different type of challenge. With six different players averaging double-digit points and 10 players putting up at least 16 minutes per outing, Atlanta is right up there with Golden State as the deepest team in the NBA. Simply put, the Cavaliers cannot key on one guy and expect to shut down the rest of the roster. That’s where the Tristan Thompson’s and J.R. Smith’s of the world come into play. They need to play great basketball on both ends if the Cavaliers are going to pull off the minor upset.

Looking at some of the issues for Atlanta, it doesn’t have that ONE guy that can go shot-for-shot with James. The team’s ability to get production from up and down the roster is going to be huge here. If someone like Kyle Korver or DeMarre Carroll has a down series, the Hawks will not advance to the Finals. This truly is a matchup of team basketball versus a near one-man show. Who will come out on top?

5. Potential Free Agents Looking to Make Their Mark

Courtesy of USA Today Sports: Draymond Green will be a highly sought-after commodity.

Courtesy of USA Today Sports: Draymond Green will be a highly sought-after commodity.

DeMarre Carroll (Hawks), Paul Millsap (Hawks), Josh Smith (Rockets) and Corey Brewer (Rockets) are all slated to become unrestricted free agents this summer. This is incredibly interesting considering all four of these players have picked up their games during the 2014-2015 season, especially in comparison to past years.

Carroll, 28, might be the most interesting of the group. He’s what we would call a late bloomer. The former Missouri star played for four teams prior to finding a spot in the Hawks rotation last season. Now a starter, Carroll averaged 12.6 points and 5.3 rebounds during the regular year. He also shot 49 percent from the field and 40 percent from three-point range.

Matthew Dellavedova (Cavaliers), Iman Shumpert (Cavaliers), Tristan Thompson (Cavaliers) and Draymond Green (Warriors) are all going to be restricted free agents. While Dellavedova and Shumpert have come up big recently, the focus here has to be on Green and Thompson.

As one of the most underrated players in the NBA, Green might be looking at a max contract offer in restricted free agency. In this, he’s been linked to his home state Detroit Pistons. Though, the Warriors have made it clear that they intend on matching any offer for his services. It likely won’t matter how Green performs in the conference finals, he’s still going to get paid. However, it’s a grand platform for him to show the world what he’s made of.

The Cavaliers also have three big-time contributors with options for the 2015-2016 season. LeBron James and J.R. Smith both hold player options, while Cleveland holds a team option on Timofey Mozgov.

Photo: USA Today Sports