TORONTO — The NBA Finals will make a first non-American appearance on Thursday night when the Toronto Raptors host the Golden State Warriors in Game 1. The Warriors are the betting favourites, and rightly so. Golden State is appearing in its fifth straight championship series, and has won three of the last four NBA titles. The Raptors are in the big show for the first time, but are riding the wave of an MVP-calibre playoff performance from superstar forward Kawhi Leonard.
Here’a a look at a few of the ways the teams match up, and a prediction of how a potentially close and exciting final could play out:
THE KAWHI FACTOR
Leonard’s inspiring play in this post-season has really hammered home how important it is to have the best player in the series on the floor. His emergence has helped the Raptors overcome the odds in two tough series leading up to the final.
Against the Philadelphia 76ers, who arguably had the most talented starting five players in the post-season, Leonard overcame stiff defensive challenges from Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler and seven-foot star centre Joel Embiid to pace the Raptors to a gruelling second-round series win. The series was capped by what is the most iconic moment in Raptors history — a buzzer-beating shot that bounced off the rim four times before going in and giving Toronto a 92-90 win at home.
The Bucks entered the Eastern Conference final boasting a frontcourt led by presumptive regular-season MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. But Leonard again showed his worth, helping to limit the imposing Antetokounmpo’s offence while providing valuable scoring of his own. He provided another immortal moment with a posterizing dunk over Antetokounmpo late in Game 6, all but icing the series for the Raptors.
While Golden State boasts plenty of star power in Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, Leonard is arguably still the best player in the series — at least until Kevin Durant returns from a calf injury. Leonard is at the very least the most complete two-way player of anyone appearing in Game 1.
SUPER SPLASH BROS.
For the Raptors to have a reasonable chance of success in this series, they will have to find a way to limit the scoring from Golden State’s dynamic backcourt of Curry and Thompson.
Far easier said than done.
Both players can create their own shot — Curry from well back of the three-point line and Thomspon off of an insanely low number of dribbles. This will present a new challenge for Toronto’s defence when compared to the Bucks, whose shooters relied on kick-outs from Antetokounmpo.
Toronto has the defenders who can do it — Leonard, Pascal Siakam, Danny Green and even veteran point guard Kyle Lowry can all guard a variety of positions effectively — but Curry is coming off one of the best series of his career, averaging 36.5 points in a sweep of Portland in the Western Conference final. Thompson figures to have something to prove after being left off the all-NBA teams.
FORGET THE PAST
Some noise has been made over the fact that Toronto won both regular-season meetings with the Warriors. As Lowry said in the days leading up to Game 1: “The regular season means nothing.”
And he’s right.
Both Raptors wins came early in the season and were outliers to begin with. One came in double-overtime against a Warriors team missing Curry and star big man Draymond Green, another was a weird 20-point blowout at Oracle Arena by a Raptors team missing Leonard. Neither result really gives any insight into how this series will go.
Besides, the Bucks won the regular-season series with the Raptors 3-1. That did not work out particularly well for the NBA regular-season champs in the playoffs.
Outside of a couple of blips — a Game 1 loss to Orlando in the first round that no doubt had many long-suffering Raptors fans steeling themselves for the worst, and a Game 2 loss against Philadelphia that probably should have been a win — Toronto has taken care of home court, going 8-2 at Scotiabank Arena.
It’s worth noting that all of the Raptors’ closeout games in this post-season — Game 5 against Orlando, Game 7 against Philadelphia and Game 6 against Milwaukee — have come at home.
While the Warriors are certainly capable of winning on the road, this is the first of their five straight Finals appearances in which it’s a requirement. It will be interesting to see how this series turns if Golden State goes back home down 2-0.
GOING THE DISTANCE?
The Raptors are not the sexy pick in the series, and why would the be? Golden State has managed to build the most dominant NBA dynasty since Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls. They will be even tougher if Durant manages to return at some point.
But dynasties eventually crumble. Leonard, who already has a Finals MVP award to his name, is playing like this is his moment — and it’s contagious. In situations in which previous versions of the Raptors would have wilted — being down 2-0, for example — this team has risen to the challenge.
The teams are well matched enough for the series to go seven games. And if it does, home-court advantage plus Leonard’s refusal to lose could be enough to see the Raptors barely through.
Prediction: Raptors in 7.
Curtis Withers, The Canadian Press