May 18, 2015

A look at the NBA's Eastern and Western Conference finals (with regular-season and playoff records):


No. 1 ATLANTA HAWKS (60-22, 8-4) vs. No. 2 CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (53-29, 8-2)

Season series: Hawks, 3-1. Atlanta won the final three meetings, though one was with LeBron James sitting out and only one came after Cleveland upgraded its rotation with the acquisitions of J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert and Timofey Mozgov. The Hawks averaged 109 points and shot 52.3 percent against the Cavs, with Al Horford making 23 of 36 shots (64 percent). James averaged 23.7 points, but had nearly as many turnovers (14) as assists (17) or rebounds (15).

Story line: A couple of teams who aren't very experienced playing this late in the season. James is back in the Eastern Conference finals for the fifth straight year, though this is Cleveland's first trip since 2009, before he left for Miami. Making their first Eastern Conference finals appearance and seeking their first championship since moving to Atlanta, the Hawks have home-court advantage but seemed to be viewed as an underdog to a Cavs team that played better in the latter half of the season.

Key Matchup I: Jeff Teague vs. Kyrie Irving. James said recently the Hawks' offense starts with Teague, whose strong second-half performances helped Atlanta win the two meetings that were close. Irving will have to match the fellow speedy All-Star at less than 100 percent. He missed the second half of Cleveland's Game 6 victory against Chicago and has been battling knee and foot problems.

Key Matchup II: Paul Millsap vs. Tristan Thompson. Millsap averaged 18 points on 55 percent shooting against the Cavs during the regular season. Perhaps Cleveland will do better with more Thompson, who has inherited the power forward role after Kevin Love's season-ending shoulder injury and made 19 of 24 shots against the Hawks during the season.

X-Factor: Matthew Dellavedova. His season-high 19 points helped the Cavs win the clincher against the Bulls after Irving was hurt, and there could be plenty of backup point guard time available in this round against an Atlanta team that sometimes plays Teague and Dennis Schroder together.

Prediction: Cavaliers in 6.


No. 1 GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (67-15, 8-2) vs. No. 2 HOUSTON ROCKETS (56-26, 8-4)

Season series: Warriors, 4-0. Golden State clobbered Houston four times by double digits, winning by an average of about 15 points in sweeping the series for the first time since 1973-74. The Warriors averaged 115 points, but put up 131 and 126 in the final two meetings. Stephen Curry averaged 25.8 points and went 14 of 27 from 3-point range (52 percent). James Harden scored 25.3 per game for Houston, which played without Dwight Howard twice in a series that ended on Jan. 21.

Story line: MVP Curry and MVP runner-up Harden meet for a chance to move closer to the biggest team prize, the NBA championship. The Warriors haven't won one since 1975, while the Rockets are still alive for their first since going back-to-back in 1994-95 after overcoming a 3-1 deficit against the Clippers in the second round.

Key Matchup I: Curry or Klay Thompson against Trevor Ariza. Like Memphis with Tony Allen, the Rockets could use their defensive wing in hopes of containing one of the Splash Brothers. The difference is Ariza can also provide some offense, scoring 13.2 points per game in the postseason and going for 22 in Game 7 against the Clippers.

Key Matchup II: Andrew Bogut vs. Howard. Bogut has to move on from Marc Gasol to Howard, who was limited to 41 games during the regular season but has had some solid moments in the postseason, averaging 17.2 points and 13.8 rebounds.

X-Factor: Terrence Jones. The Warriors never saw the Rockets' former starting forward during the regular season. Now coming off the bench behind Josh Smith, Jones has been good for 11.3 points in just 24 minutes per game during the postseason.

Prediction: Warriors in 5.

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