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Five things to watch in the NBA Conference Finals

And then there were four.

Only the Houston Rockets can stop defending NBA champions Golden State Warriors claiming their fourth consecutive Western Conference title.

It’s a similar story in the East with the Boston Celtics trying to deny the Cleveland Cavaliers a ‘four-peat’ of conference crowns.

There are storylines galore in the series deciding this year’s NBA finalists.

So here are five things to look out for in the NBA Conference Finals.

1. Can Houston halt the Golden surge?

With two NBA championships in the last three years, Golden State are on the brink of establishing a basketball dynasty.

After going down to the Cavaliers in the 2016 NBA Finals, Steve Kerr added Kevin Durant to an already potent mix.

Double Olympic gold medallist Durant was 2017 Finals MVP as he and Steph Curry exacted revenge on Cleveland 4-1.

A third consecutive rematch is on the cards but Houston will be no pushovers.

In Chris Paul and James Harden, the Rockets have two double Olympic gold medallists and two proven matchwinners.

They led the league in the regular season with a 65-17 record, eight games better than the Warriors.

Houston also shaded their series in the campaign, 2-1, with Paul leading the side with 33 points and 11 rebounds.

Harden, in his second game back from a hamstring injury, scored 22 points including a vital jumper over Curry in the closing stages.

2. Fear the B3ARD

James Harden is the hot favourite to win his first NBA MVP award this year.

The highlight for the bearded rocket was his historic tally of 60 points, 10 rebounds, and 11 assists against the Orlando Magic in January.

Chris Paul’s arrival in the off-season has made Harden even more of a threat.

With an average of 30.4 points per game in the regular season, Harden’s scoring is comparable with the likes of Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant.

As well as being hard to stop with his range of shooting, the 28-year-old draws more fouls than anyone else.

He has upped his game on defense too, chipping in with close to five defensive rebounds per game.

Harden has opened both playoff series this year with 40-point games in Houston.

Another one to start against Golden State on Monday night would do nicely.

3. CP3 v Chef Curry

Chris Paul was the best point guard in the NBA.

Then Steph Curry came along.

‘CP3’ and his LA Clippers may have beaten Curry and Golden State in the first round of the 2014 Playoffs before going out to Oklahoma City, however since then, Curry’s Warriors have become the dominant force in basketball.

After six consecutive playoff appearances without reaching the finals, Paul left the Clippers for Houston.

And in his first season with the Rockets, the nine-time All-Star is in his first conference finals.

But ‘Chef Curry’ looks in the mood to serve up something special.

It is definitely a match-up to savour and the winners of the West will be strong favourites to win the NBA Finals.

4. Can LeBron keep his run going?

LeBron James has won seven consecutive Eastern Conference titles – three with Miami Heat and four with the Cavaliers.

Only three men have longer streaks, all of them Boston Celtics.

So it’s apt that the Celtics stand in King James’s way this year.

The Cavs are strong favourites to go to the finals again on the back of some outstanding performances from their star man.

James has averaged 34.3 points, 9.0 assists, and 9.4 rebounds in the post-season including four 40-point games.

He has also scored two ‘buzzer-beaters’, the last coming in game three of Cleveland’s semi-final sweep of the Toronto Raptors.

The Raptors led the East in the regular season, but could not live with LeBron and co.

5. Will Boston defy the odds again?

Something has to give when the Cavaliers visit Boston on Sunday.

While LeBron James has won his last six playoff games in the Garden, the Celtics have clinched all eight of their home matches this postseason.

The fact that Boston are back in the Eastern Conference finals is largely down to Brad Stevens.

In his first job in the NBA after a stellar college career, Stevens is establishing himself as one of the best head coaches in the league.

Despite injuries to key players Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving, Boston were second in the East with a 55-27 record.

And led by rookie Jayson Tatum, they have kept that form going to be the surprise package in the final four.

Tatum beat Kobe Bryant’s record as the youngest player to score 20 points in four consecutive playoff games… before making it five in a row.

Second-year guard Jaylen Brown and veteran centre Al Horford have also been pivotal in Boston’s run.

While the future is certainly bright for the Celtics, they go into this series as underdogs.

But under coach Stevens, anything is possible.

 

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