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(Reuters) - Stephen Curry and James Harden will rehash their MVP race rivalry, while Cleveland’s one-man band of LeBron James will test Atlanta’s team harmony as the conference finals tip off in the National Basketball Association.
Curry's top-seeded Golden State Warriors are set to meet the Harden-led Houston Rockets in a Western Conference shootout, and across the coast the Cavaliers and Hawks face off in the East with each team trying to make a rare appearance in the NBA Finals.
Cleveland’s chances have rested on the broad shoulders of James since he announced last off-season he would be returning home to the Cavaliers following a four-year run with the Miami Heat.
James has played in the last four NBA Finals, winning two, and a trip to a fifth consecutive might be his greatest feat considering the youth and fading health of the Cavs.
James is averaging nearly a triple-double in the playoffs (26.5 points, 10. 2 rebounds, 7.9 assists) as Cleveland swept Boston in the first round and overcame Chicago in the second round despite the absence of injured forward Kevin Love.
All Star guard Kyrie Irving is also now ailing, after he aggravated tendinitis in his left knee against Chicago and could be limited against the Hawks.
His status will be one of many uncertainties for the Cavaliers, whose playoff inexperience extends to their embattled coach David Blatt.
Blatt was a European coaching giant but his rookie season in the NBA is proving to a challenge, and coaching miscues has his job status rumored to be in jeopardy.
Across the sidelines will be Atlanta’s second-year coach Mike Budenholzer, who won Coach of the Year and leads a feel-good Hawks group known for its teamwork.
Atlanta used unity to capture the East’s top seed, and boasts six players averaging double figures in scoring in the post-season.
The Hawks defeated Brooklyn in the opening round, and posted a tough win over Washington, also in six games.
Leading scorer DeMarre Carroll, post players Paul Millsap and Al Horford, along with guard Jeff Teague lead the way on a team that lacks a true go-to scorer.
Despite their balance, the Hawks find themselves as the underdog against the juggernaut that is James. The Warriors have been the frontrunner of the West all season, headed by most valuable player Curry. The sharpshooting point guard has put on a three-point clinic as he validates the MVP award he captured over runner-up Harden for his regular-season excellence.
Golden State’s showdown with Houston comes after they swept New Orleans in the opening round and put Memphis away in six games.
With fellow perimeter scorer Klay Thompson, and defensive anchor Draymond Green, the entertaining Warriors are redefining the road to NBA success as they blitz through the competition, leaning on outside shooting rather than an inside presence.
Golden State is trying to reach their first NBA Finals since 1975.
Their match-up with the Rockets is sure to be a three-point shootout as no team attempted more three-pointers throughout the season than Houston.
The second seeded Rockets have been a long shot, reaching the West finals by overcoming the Los Angeles Clippers in the second round despite a 3-1 series deficit.
Houston clawed its way back led by a gritty group centered around leading scorer Harden, center Dwight Howard and forwards Josh Smith and Trevor Ariza.
Harden and the Rockets will be in the familiar position of overlooked underdogs, a place in which they have managed to thrive.
Editing by Gene Cherry