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NBA Daily: Who are the Conference Finals’ X-Factors?

Which teams qualify for the NBA Finals may be determined by some potentially unsung heroes.

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With the elimination of the Philadelphia 76ers Wednesday night, both Conference Finals series are set: in the East, the Boston Celtics will take on the Cleveland Cavaliers and, in the West, the Houston Rockets will take on the Golden State Warriors. One, a rematch from last season, the other, a matchup that’s been anticipated all season long, both series look to have some great basketball ahead of them.

That being said, all four teams have spots they’ll have to address, whether it be on the offensive side of the ball, the defensive side, or both. Whether it be tweaks or improvements to make, a player who must play well in order for their team to succeed or simply a player who needs to step their game up, each of Boston, Cleveland, Golden State and Houston has a guy, an X-factor, who can be a difference maker.

So, who are the guys who needs to get it done for their squad?

Boston Celtics: Marcus Morris

Going up against the Cavaliers, Brad Stevens will try a number of different players on LeBron James. While starters Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Al Horford will likely get the first crack at James, Marcus Morris figures to be the player Stevens would first turn to off the bench.

The prototypical “LeBron stopper,” if there was such a thing, the 6’9″ Morris has fared better than most against James in the past and his defensive intensity could provide a major spark for the undermanned Celtics.

Offensively, almost anything would be better than what Morris has provided up to this point. After averaging 13.6 points during the regular season, Morris’ scoring average has dipped to just 12.4 points per game across Boston two series against the Milwaukee Bucks and Philadelphia 76ers. He hasn’t been able to shoot his way out of a paper bag — Morris has shot just 35.4 percent from the field this postseason after hitting at a 42.9 percent clip during the regular season — and that has to change if the Celtics want any chance of extending their already improbable playoff run.

Cleveland Cavaliers: Tristan Thompson (or anyone not named LeBron James)

Regardless of who is guarding him, James is, more likely than not, going to get his on the offensive end. Whether he scores 25-plus points or posts double-digit assists will come down to Stevens’ and the Celtics’ game plan.

That said, it will be up to the other Cavaliers (no, not those “Other Cavaliers”) to step up and provide James with adequate support — something that hasn’t been a given this postseason. Much of the squad has been up-and-down across the Cavaliers’ two playoff series — they struggled mightily against the Indiana Pacers before flipping a switch against the Toronto Raptors — and, depending on which squad decides to show up, James’ could have his work cut out for him against a well coached, well disciplined Celtics squad.

To name one player, Tristan Thompson could have a major impact on the outcome of this series. Thompson has feasted on the Celtics in the past and Boston could struggle to contend with both him and Kevin Love on the glass. This time last postseason, Thompson averaged 11.6 points and 7.2 boards as the Cavaliers dismantled the Celtics in five games; anything resembling that would be a welcome sight to both James and Cavalier fans.

Golden State Warriors: Klay Thompson

It almost seems like an insult to relegate a player of Klay Thompson’s stature to “x-factor.” However, in a series packed with as much star-power as Golden State–Houston, this is where we are.

Thompson will be tasked with hounding likely-MVP James Harden — who has averaged 28.5 points, 7.4 assists and five rebounds per game this postseason while shooting 40.7 percent from the field — at times and future Hall of Famer Chris Paul at others. If Thompson can stay in their faces and keep Harden off the line, Houston could struggle to manufacture points — especially in the pick-and-roll, where both Harden and Paul have routinely found Clint Capela rolling to the basket this season.

On the opposite side of the ball, all Thompson needs to do is play his game. The Rockets will have their hands full trying to keep Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and himself all under wraps; if Thompson can shoot lights out like he has in the past, this series will be over very quickly.

Houston Rockets: P.J. Tucker

If it wasn’t already clear, P.J. Tucker, averaging just nine points and 4.8 rebounds per game this postseason, makes his money on the defensive end. One of the more versatile defenders in the NBA, Tucker will likely draw a slew of defensive assignments in this series.

The most important? Draymond Green.

Durant may be the best all-around player in the series. Curry is the straw that stirs the Warriors’ drink. But Green, who averaged 14.8 points, 11.8 rebounds and 10 assists per game against the New Orleans Pelicans, provides the energy that drives Golden State to greatness. Since he was drafted, the Warriors have gone undefeated, 26-0, when Green posts a triple-double.

Tucker will be asked to keep Green quiet, both literally and on the stat-sheet. While they may dare him to shoot, shutting Green down on the glass and in the passing lanes, while also neutralizing him on the defensive end, is of paramount importance to Houston’s success in this series. Tucker, perhaps more than anyone else on the Rockets, is likely up to the task.

The Eastern Conference Finals kick off in Boston Sunday afternoon, while the Western Conference Finals will Monday night. All of these players, and many others, could have a hand in their respective series, and they will need to in order for their respective teams to have a chance to continue on to the NBA Finals.

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