NBA: Ranking the most important players in the conference finals, including plenty of local favorites

Now that the Houston Rockets have comeback from a three games-to-one deficit to eliminate the Los Angeles Clippers, the NBA has its final four.
The Rockets will square off against the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference while the Cleveland Cavaliers will battle the Atlanta Hawks in the east for the right to play for the NBA championship.
One of the major keys to who will advance to the Finals is how the stars perform – and we definitely have some stars still remaining. Some stars will step up in the big spots and carry their teams to victory while others will be over-matched and get sent home without reaching the goal.
With that in mind, here is the ranking of the most important players left in the NBA playoffs.
15. Tristan Thompson, Cleveland Cavaliers
Thompson is a huge piece for the success of the Cavaliers because of his ability to rebound the basketball. He has owned the offensive glass during the first two rounds for Cleveland and provided plenty of extra opportunities to score. His finishing ability around the rim can’t be overlooked either in a matchup against an undersized team.
So far in the playoffs, he is averaging 8.5 points on 56.6 percent shooting with 9.4 rebounds and 1.1 blocks in 32.4 minutes a game.
14. Andrew Bogut, Golden State Warriors
Bogut is the defensive backbone of a terrific Golden State defense. He did an excellent job of providing weak side help to keep both Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph at bay to help the Warriors advance to the next round.  He will need to rebound, block shots and keep Dwight Howard in check for the Warriors to make a push to the NBA finals.
So far in the playoffs, he is averaging 5.3 points on 59.1 percent shooting with 8.3 rebounds, 2.0 assists and 2.0 blocks in 25.9 minutes a contest.
13. Kyle Korver, Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks have struggled a bit during the first two rounds and Korver was a big reason why. When he is locked in with his outside shot, he can space the floor better than anyone on the league. That creates lanes for Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder to attack the rim and get easy buckets. When Korver isn’t hitting, those lanes are much smaller and the Hawks aren’t as effective offensively. If Atlanta has any chance to knock off the Cavaliers, then he really needs to knock down shots.
So far in the playoffs, he is averaging 11.3 points on 38.5 percent shooting from the floor, including just 35 percent from 3-point range in 38.1 minutes a game.
12. Josh Smith, Houston Rockets
Smith might be the biggest wildcard in all of the playoffs. He helped to keep the Rockets alive against the Clippers after Kevin McHale inserted him into the starting lineup. He has been good on the glass, done a solid job on defense and knocked down more than a handful of huge 3-point shots. If the Rockets want to make it to the finals, Smith will need to be even better against the Warriors.
So far in the playoffs, he is averaging 12.9 points on 46.4 percent shooting with 5.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists in 22.6 minutes a night.
11. Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks
While Millsap will need to produce on the offensive end of the floor, his biggest role just may be on the defensive glass if the Hawks are to advance past the much larger Cleveland Cavaliers. Thankfully for Atlanta, Millsap has being doing work on the backboards for a long time and knows how to get it done. He will also be called upon to spell DeMarre Carroll in trying to slow down LeBron James. If he can do those things, the Hawks will have a shot at a ring.
So far in the playoffs, he is averaging 15.7 points, 9.0 rebounds, 3.8 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.1 blocks in 35.4 minutes a game.
10. Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
Green has been a massive reason for the steps the Warriors have taken this season. New coach Steve Kerr trusted him with more minutes, and Green contributed on both ends of the floor. He helps to space the floor by knocking down the open three and is one of the best defenders in the game. He will need to help out on the glass, knock down open shots and take his turn slowing down James Harden if the Warriors want to move on.
So far in the playoffs, he is averaging 13.8 points, 10.1 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 2.1 steals in 37.1 minutes a contest.
9. Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks
Horford has a tall task at hand if Atlanta wants to make its way to the finals. He must keep Tristan Thompson and Timofey Mozgov off the offensive glass and also be the rim protector for when LeBron James and Kyrie Irving get into the lane. Neither assignment will be an easy one, But Horford has had plenty of chances to get ready by shutting down Marcin Gortat and Nene in the last round.
So far in the playoffs, he is averaging 15.6 points, 9.9 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 1.8 blocks in 33.8 minutes a night.
8. Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers
Irving would be higher on this list if not for some nagging injuries that have slowed him down. Even though he has struggled with his health, Irving will need to make huge contributions if the Cavaliers are to move on. He will need to knock down shots to give LeBron James some help on the offensive end while trying to stay in front of two of the league’s quickest guards in Teague and Schroder.
So far in the playoffs, he is averaging 19.8 points, 3.3 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 1.2 steals in 37.1 minutes a game.
7. Dwight Howard, Houston Rockets
For the Rockets to advance, Howard will need to be huge on both ends of the floor. He will need to attack Bogut and the other Warriors bigs so that they can’t help off and will need to finish at a high percentage around the rim. On the other end of the floor, he will need to close down cutting lanes and limit the Warriors’ second chance opportunities.
So far in the playoffs, he is averaging 17.2 points, 13.8 rebounds, 2.5 blocks, 1.3 assists and 1.3 steals in 33.3 minutes a contest.
6. Jeff Teague, Atlanta Hawks
Teague will be the most important piece for the Hawks on the offensive end of the floor against the Cavaliers. He has a an edge in the speed department against whoever David Blatt (or LeBron James) throws at him. Teague needs to take advantage of the mismatch to get to the paint and create scoring opportunities for his teammates. If he can do that consistently, Atlanta will have a really good shot at making it to the finals.
So far in the playoffs, he is averaging 15.3 points, 7.4 assists, 3.2 rebounds and 1.6 steals in 32.3 minutes a night.
5. Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
Even though he is playing next to the league MVP, Thompson’s value to the success of the Warriors can’t be understated. He is one of the best catch-and-shoot players in the league today, but can also beat his defender off the bounce if need be. The most underrated part of his game will be huge in this series as he will be the primary defender on James Harden. If he can force Harden to shoot jump shots and stay out of foul trouble, the Warriors will punch their ticket to the NBA finals.
So far in the playoffs, he is averaging 20.7 points on 47.7 percent shooting from distance with 4.2 rebounds and 2.8 assists in 37.5 minutes a game.
4. DeMarre Carroll, Atlanta Hawks
The lone Hawks’ starter to not make the all-star game is the most important piece to their success against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Carroll will have the toughest assignment of anyone in trying to guard LeBron James. If that isn’t difficult enough, Carroll will also need to make his presence felt on the offensive end where he has been the Hawks’ most consistent player to this point in the playoffs.
So far in the playoffs, he is averaging 17.1 points on 52.4 percent shooting with 6.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists and 1.1 steals in 35.2 minutes a night.
3. James Harden, Houston Rockets
The runner-up in the MVP voting will have his hands full if he wants to help unseat the Warriors and make his way to the finals. Harden is the most creative scorers in the game who can get to the free-throw line at will and capitalize. Against the Warriors, he will have to show off his scoring prowess against some of the elite wing defenders in the game today in Thompson, Green and Andre Iguodala. On top of that, he will need to step up on the defensive end for the Rockets to have any shot.
So far in the playoffs, he is averaging 26.7 points, 8.0 assists, 4.8 rebounds and 1.3 steals in 36.4 minutes a contest.
2. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
While he has plenty of talent around him, Curry has to be the catalyst if the Warriors are to advance to the NBA finals. The league MVP will need to space the floor with his remarkable shooting touch, attack the rim when he is run off the 3-point line and create great looks for his teammates. He will also need to create a pace that the undermanned Rockets can’t possibly hang with. On the defensive end, he will need to keep Jason Terry from getting wide-open looks from the outside.
So far in the playoffs, he is averaging 28.2 points, 6.8 assists, 5.1 rebounds and 1.8 steals in 38.7 minutes a game.
1. LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
With the new “Big -Three” shrunk to one-and-a half because of injuries, James will have to shoulder more of the load than he did with the Miami Heat if he is to make his fifth straight appearance in the NBA finals. He will need to handle most of the ball handling responsibilities, take and make big shots and guard whoever is doing the most damage for the Hawks. While it will be a daunting task, he has shown that he is more than up to the challenge.
So far in the playoffs, he is averaging 26.5 points, 10.2 rebounds, 7.9 assists, 1.9 steals and 1.6 blocks in 41.7 minutes a night.

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