ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
There's something new in the National Basketball Association's Conference Finals. Golden State plays Houston in the West tomorrow night. Cleveland takes on Atlanta in the East on Wednesday - unfamiliar territory for all involved. The last time the Atlanta Hawks got this far was in 1961. They were actually the St. Louis Hawks with Mr. pro Basketball Bob Pettit back then. The Golden State Warriors haven't been there for 39 years, and for Houston, it's been 18 years. For Cleveland, it was just six years ago with LeBron James during his first tour of basketball duty with the Cavs. NPR's Tom Goldman joins us now to talk about pro basketball's Final Four. A lot of new - can we say new and improved?
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: I think you can, Robert, if you like your basketball fast-paced with long-range shooting and a lot of passing, as most fans do. You know, the NBA has been heading that way in recent years, and this collection of teams is a great indication of the change the game's undergone. You know, in the past, offensive success, especially in the postseason, was kind of a slowdown kind of offense, often isolate with one or two players involved in the play - not very exciting to watch. But in recent years, it's been more about spreading the offensive players around the half court, utilizing three-point shooters, making the extra pass, and these teams do that. Golden State, of course, most celebrated for its high-octane, quick shooting and long-range shooting offense; when it comes to three-pointers, Houston and Atlanta, actually, shoot more than the Warriors this postseason.
SIEGEL: What about defense, though? We've always heard that's a major part of postseason success.
GOLDMAN: Oh, it still is. You know, in fact, Cleveland, Golden State and Atlanta are in the top four in least points allowed per game during these playoffs. The Warriors, who are favored to win the title, sometimes are compared to that exciting Phoenix Suns team in the late 2000s - 2006-2007 - with the great point guard Steve Nash running that high-octane offense. Coach Mike D'Antoni giving players the green light to shoot, but that Suns team was limited because its defense wasn't great, and that's where the Warriors separate. Golden State has a great defense. It's been the best in the NBA this season, and the combination of that and the offense makes the Warriors the favorites.
SIEGEL: OK, so Warriors versus the Houston Rockets in the West; in the East, Cleveland versus Atlanta. How do you predict that one?
GOLDMAN: Tougher to predict. The Hawks have not looked in this postseason like the wonderful, free-flowing, move-the-ball-around team they were in the regular the season, you know, a kind of poor man's San Antonio Spurs. But they are doing enough to win, and with the confidence of getting to the conference finals, we could see that regular season mojo emerge again. The Cavs are dealing with injuries to key players. Kevin Love is out. Kyrie Irving is hobbling with a hurt knee. He's the great point guard for the Cavaliers. He may not play game one on Wednesday, but LeBron James is still a force of nature, Robert, at age 30. He's propped this team up. He's been the safety net, allowing role players to emerge and gain confidence - guys like J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Matthew Dellavedova, Tristan Thompson. The Cavs come in with all these guys playing well. LeBron James is always there to turn on the jets when necessary. The Cavs win this one, but it won't be easy, I think.
SIEGEL: You said Kyrie Irving may not play for Cleveland in the first game. Is it clear that he will probably play in this series period?
GOLDMAN: Well, he should. He's had a couple of days off to rest his knee. He's dealing with, reportedly, tendinitis in his knee. You know, we're not talking about a major knee injury like an ACL tear or something like that. And he aggravated the injury during the Cavs game six win over the Chicago Bulls. But Kyrie Irving should be good to go. We just don't know if it'll be Wednesday.
SIEGEL: That's NPR sports correspondent Tom Goldman on the NBA Conference Finals. Tom, thanks.
GOLDMAN: You're welcome, Robert.
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