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NBA Conference Finals: The four star men you have to watch

Watch Trail Blazers @ Warriors Game 1 live on Sky Sports Arena in the early hours of Wednesday morning (2am)

Tuesday 14 May 2019 16:21, UK

Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors handles the ball against Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers on February 13, 2019 at the Moda Center in Portland, Oregon
Image: Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard will go head-to-head in the Western Conference Finals

With the NBA Conference Finals set to get underway, we've picked out a star player from each team, who can't be missed over the next two weeks of action.

Playoff Picture: How things stand

Playoff Picture: How things stand

Who has made it through to the Conference Finals?

Damian Lillard (Portland Trail Blazers)

Damian Lillard controls possession for Portland in Game 6 1:59
Damina Lillard outduelled Nikola Jokic as the Portland Trail Blazers defeated the Denver Nuggets in Game 6 of their Western Conference semi-final series

The star of the opening round of the playoffs as he almost single-handedly took apart the Oklahoma City Thunder, Lillard was unable to maintain those performance levels against the Denver Nuggets.

Thankfully for him, his backcourt partner CJ McCollum stepped up, most notably in Game 7, to send the Trail Blazers to the Conference Finals for the first time since 2000.

Live NBA: Portland @ Golden State

After dismantling the Thunder with 33.0 points per game and a stunning 46.9 per cent from three-point range, those numbers dropped to 25.1 points, and 27.0 per cent from beyond the arc against the Nuggets.

An ultimate team player, Lillard further enhanced that reputation by willingly taking a backseat as McCollum went off in Game 7, but he was still on hand to make his only two three-pointers of the game when it mattered most, in the fourth quarter.

Damian Lillard shoots a three-pointer in Portland's Game 5 clash with Oklahoma City 0:20
Damian Lillard hit a series-clinching three-pointer at the buzzer to earn the Portland Trail Blazers a 118-115 Game 5 win over Oklahoma City Thunder

Such is his proficiency in the clutch, the latter stages of close Trail Blazers games are generally referred to as 'Dame Time', with Lillard expected to take over at any moment. He is the only player in NBA history to hit two playoff series-ending buzzer-beaters and for that reason the Warriors will be wary of letting the Blazers hang around in any game.

Portland's achievements this postseason are made all the more special by the resolve they've shown in coming back from a humbling opening round sweep at the hands of the New Orleans Pelicans in last year's playoffs, which would have seen most teams left dispirited, or more likely dismantled.

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Not that he needs it, but there will be added motivation for Lillard as he plays in his hometown of Oakland, likely for the final time in an NBA game, with the Warriors set to relocate to San Francisco next season.

Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors)

Stephen Curry celebrates a three en route to 38 points against the Clippers 2:22
Stephen Curry drained eight treys to pass Ray Allen's all-time mark for career playoff three-pointers made as the Warriors beat the Clippers

With the Warriors' leading scorer Kevin Durant out injured for at least the start of the Western Conference Finals, the stage is set for Curry to remind the basketball world of his pedigree.

Durant's presence in Oakland for the past three seasons has seen Curry give up some of the offensive responsibility that saw him - and the Warriors - rise to prominence with a championship in 2015, and an all-time regular season record the following campaign.

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While the results since Durant's arrival have been perfect with back-to-back titles secured, Curry's standing in the game has been at least questioned, with some arguing he - and the other Warriors - needed Durant to add to their 2015 title.

Doubters will point to his failure to match his regular season performances in the playoffs; on only one occasion in his seven postseason appearances has Curry achieved a higher field-goal percentage than he managed in the regular season.

Stephen Curry scores at the rim during the Golden State Warriors' series-clinching Game 6 win over the Houston Rockets 1:57
Stephen Curry erupted for 33 second-half points to lead the Golden State Warriors to a series-clinching 118-113 Game 6 win over the Houston Rockets

However, such are his staggeringly high regular-season numbers, that doesn't mean his playoff performances haven't been impactful, with the Western Conference semi-finals against the Houston Rockets a perfect example.

Having lost Durant to a calf strain during a close Game 5 with the series tied at 2-2, Curry scored 12 of his 25 points in the fourth quarter to help seal a victory. He then bounced back from a scoreless first half in Game 6 to drop 33 points over the next two quarters and eliminate the Rockets.

Curry's remarkable long-range shooting established him as one of the league's most exciting players, but his relentless off-ball movement is equally crucial in opening up scoring opportunities for team-mates. While it may not show up on the stat sheet, the likelihood is that it will lead to a fourth championship in five years.

Kawhi Leonard (Toronto Raptors)

Kawhi Leonard #2 of the Toronto Raptors shoots the ball against the Philadelphia 76ers during Game One of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs on April 27, 2019 at the Scotiabank Arena in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 2:02
Kawhi Leonard scored 45 points to guide the Raptors to a 1-0 lead in the Eastern Conference semi-final series against the 76ers

With LeBron James absent from this season's playoffs, Kevin Durant's opening-round heroics against the Los Angeles Clippers led many to declare that the 'King' had been dethroned as the best player in the game.

Well if that was true, Durant's reign may have only lasted a couple of weeks, as Leonard produced one of the all-time great series to drag the Raptors to a seven-game victory over the Philadelphia 76ers.

Live NBA: Toronto @ Milwaukee

Leonard played elite defense while averaging 34.7 points per game on 54.0 per cent shooting from the floor, figures both made more impressive by his team-mates' weak offensive performances and the consequent intensive defensive schemes the Sixers were able to throw at him.

The best was saved until last, as Leonard hit the first ever Game 7 buzzer-beater in NBA history, with an insanely tough fadeaway jump shot, which dramatically bounced around the rim before dropping through the net to send Toronto wild.

Kawhi Leonard of the Toronto Raptors shoots the game winning basket against the Philadelphia 76ers during Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals of the 2019 NBA Playoffs 0:31
Kawhi Leonard sent the Toronto Raptors to the Eastern Conference final with the final play of the game

Leonard was acquired by the Raptors last summer in a trade with the San Antonio Spurs, where the relationship between franchise and player had broken down over the handling of a quad injury that saw him miss almost all of last season.

Although Leonard arrived with considerable pedigree, a former Finals MVP on the Spurs' 2014 championship-winning team, the Raptors gambled by trading for a player whose contract expires this summer, and many expect to leave for his native Los Angeles (Clippers), but even if he does, their run this far appears to have justified the move.

Also vindicated has been the Raptors decision to provide Leonard with plenty of rest during the regular season. He sat out 22 games as the organisation decided to take a cautious approach to his return from injury, and his playoff performances have eliminated any questions over it.

Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks)

Giannis Antetokounmpo lofts a scoop lay-up against Detroit 1:59
Giannis Antetokounmpo erupted for 41 points as the Milwaukee Bucks beat the Detroit Pistons 127-104 to complete a 4-0 series sweep

Much like the Bucks team that he leads, Antetokounmpo is the young pretender attempting to establish himself among the NBA's elite.

With an MVP-calibre regular season under his belt, the 24-year-old has gone a long way to confirming his individual greatness and is enhancing his reputation in the playoffs.

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Having secured the best regular-season record in the NBA, the Bucks cruised past the Detroit Pistons in the opening round, before overcoming a concerning start to crush the Boston Celtics in five games.

As the Celtics eased to a Game 1 victory in Milwaukee, their defensive scheme appeared to have frazzled Antetokoumpo, as Al Horford limited him to an uncharacteristically low 7-21 shooting effort from the floor.

Giannis Antetokounmpo attacks against the Boston Celtics in Game 5 1:09
Giannis Antetokounmpo supplied 20 points, eight assists and eight rebounds as the Milwaukee Bucks clinched a 4-1 series win over the Boston Celtics

Antetokounmpo responded like a champion, leading the Bucks to four straight wins on much improved shooting performances, including a dominant 39-point showing to win Game 4 in Boston.

Known as the 'Greek Freak', Antetokounmpo's incredible athleticism allows him to make plays - more often than not at the rim - that most of his rivals can't even begin to think about.

Similarly to the Celtics, the Raptors possess one of the longest and most athletic defences in the NBA and will be able to make life difficult for Antetokoumpo. Watching him navigate his way through it promises to be box office.

The Trail Blazers face the Warriors in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals in the early hours of Wednesday morning (2am), and the Raptors face the Bucks in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Thursday morning (1:30am), live on Sky Sports Arena.

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