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Home - NBA: Focus on the final four




  NBA: Focus on the final four



The NBA season is fast approaching its conclusion. 26 teams have seen their title dreams dashed, with only three remaining to be eliminated before Adam Silver hands the Larry O'Brien trophy to one lucky team owner in June.

The NBA market has always been one where star power counts, although Atlanta is making a good run at repeating Detroit's success from last decade with a well-rounded team of solid players.

But now they come up against LeBron James in the Eastern Conference finals. James is still widely regarded as the best player in the world, despite missing out on the MVP award now for the last two seasons.

This year's top two in the MVP voting, Steph Curry and James Harden, clash out West in the series between Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets.

Aside from the star names, which other players figure to have an impact on where the championship rings will go?

Atlanta

The Philips Arena crowd in Atlanta held its collective breath when DeMarre Carroll went down writhing in agony in the fourth quarter of Game 1. The initial prognosis is that there is no structural damage, but Atlanta definitely needs Carroll back if they have a hope of winning this series.

Carroll was the only one of Atlanta's starting five not to play in the All-Star game, although he did share the honors when the Atlanta starters were named as the Eastern Conference players of the month for January.

The Hawks do have a solid bench, but they rely heavily on their starters, with Carroll joining All-Star point guard Jeff Teague, elite shooter Kyle Korver and quality versatile big men Paul Millsap and Al Horford in averaging more than 30 minutes per game.

With the rotation shortening as we approach the decisive moments of the season, Carroll’s minutes have increased to 35 per night in 12 playoff matches, and he has risen to the big occasion. Carroll leads the Hawks in postseason scoring with 17 points per game, shooting 43 percent from long range and 81 percent from the charity stripe.


His biggest challenge awaits, but it is not one by which Carroll will be overawed. As noted by NBA.com’s John Schuhmann via SportVU, LeBron shot only 2-13 when guarded by Carroll during the regular season.

Atlanta has thrived thus far on impressive cohesive teamwork, and DeMarre Carroll is a vital “glue player” for this team. For him to make the NBA Finals over LeBron is almost unimaginable, but with the help of his teammates, Carroll might just have enough to help lead his team to the big stage.

Young German point guard Dennis Schroder will also catch the eye - his strong play helped lift the Hawks past Washington in Game 5, and he is averaging a solid 10 points and four assists per game.


Cleveland

Tristan Thompson has struggled to gain acceptance during his time in the league, with many doubting Cleveland when they reached for him with the fourth pick of the 2011 Draft.

But he is establishing a good niche alongside LeBron and Kyrie Irving, working hard on the boards and providing a big-man defensive presence in the middle.

Thompson was the only Cavalier to play in all 82 games in the regular season, and he has helped to provide a solid foundation for the squad in a rollercoaster year. After Kevin Love’s injury, Thompson’s role has grown, and he is comfortable finishing around the rim, shooting 57 percent from the field in the playoffs.

On a Cavaliers squad blessed with two of the league’s premier offensive talents in James and Irving and the streaky hot-shooting of J.R. Smith, but suffering through long-term injuries to big men Love and Anderson Varejao, it has been important for the role players to contribute tough defense.

Iman Shumpert’s addition from New York has been another essential part to the puzzle as Cleveland chases that elusive title.


Golden State

The sharp-shooting of Curry and his backcourt mate Klay Thompson catches the eye, with both liable to get hot and take a game away from the opposition quickly.

But you could hardly say that Draymond Green flies under the radar. The scrappy undersized big man has carved out a great role for himself alongside the Splash Brothers, playing inspirational defense on the inside and providing a threat on offense too.

Green’s stellar play earned him second place in the Defensive Player of the Year voting, as well as a spot on the All-Defense First Team, so his praises have been numerously sung.

Australian center Andrew Bogut, a former No. 1 draft pick, missed last year’s painful playoff defeat to the L.A. Clippers, so his impact on the team is clearly recognised.

Young gun Harrison Barnes shares time on the wing with experienced veteran Andre Iguodala, and both have made valuable contributions to the team. Barnes has struggled at times in his NBA career but has found some consistency in his third season, averaging 10 points per night on 48 percent shooting.


Outside of his top six, Shaun Livingston is the reserve upon whom coach Steve Kerr has relied the most. Livingston’s size and versatility help to enable Golden State’s defense to switch in a lot of pick-and-roll situations, part of the reason why the Warriors ended the season with the league’s No. 1-ranked defense.

Houston

Two of Houston’s best unsung heroes, point guard Patrick Beverley and young Lithuanian forward Donatas Motiejunas, have been sidelined for the playoffs due to injury, making the Rockets’ run to the Conference Finals all the more remarkable.

Beverley is a tenacious defender, and Motiejunas’s shooting had helped Houston to space the floor around star guard James Harden.

But the Rockets have accumulated a lot of interesting pieces during GM Daryl Morey’s reign, including eight players who averaged double-figures in point per game during the regular season.

Two of the mid-season acquisitions, Josh Smith and Corey Brewer, were key contributors in the stunning Game 6 comeback against the Clippers, and while you would not want to have to depend on either of them as your team leader, their skillsets and tenacity make them very dangerous role-players.


Trevor Ariza has been Houston’s main man on the wing, having been acquired last summer for his second spell in Texas. Ariza is a solid defender who has that glorious knack of hitting timely shots in the playoffs, where he is an experienced campaigner who won a title with the Lakers in 2009.

Terrence Jones has helped to provide toughness up front alongside Smith and Dwight Howard, but many thought that Houston would struggle to get far without its regular point guard, making the contributions of veterans Jason Terry and Pablo Prigioni all the more valuable.

Neither of the experienced campaigners can fill the stat sheet, but they have managed to keep Houston going, even when faced with Chris Paul of the Clippers in the last round. Terry also brings championship experience from his run with Dallas in 2011, and he is another player who can't be left alone in the final minutes of a game, as he has shown time and again that he can make the big shots.

The star names of LeBron, Curry and Harden are still likely to dominate the sports media coverage in the coming weeks. But to reach their goals, they will need all the assistance that their teammates can muster.




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