By John Healy
For the fifth consecutive year, the Golden State Warriors are in the NBA Finals, but this time -- after four straight showdowns with the Cleveland Cavaliers -- they will have a new opponent.
The Toronto Raptors, led by All-Star forward Kawhi Leonard, will be making the first NBA Finals appearance in franchise history after overcoming an 0-2 deficit to win four straight games against the No. 1 seed Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals.
Will the Warriors, who continue to be led by the core group of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and the injured Kevin Durant, complete a three-peat and win their fourth NBA title in five years, or will the Raptors make history with their first?
Here are five things to watch for in the series, which begins Thursday night in Toronto:
1. Will Durant play?
Durant has been ruled out for Game 1, but his status will remain a significant factor in this series, especially if the Raptors take a series lead. The Warriors have won every game since Durant went down with a calf strain in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Houston Rockets. Still, Durant is a two-time NBA Finals MVP and arguably the best player in the game right now. Even if he is not at 100 percent, his return would be impactful for the Warriors.
2. Can Leonard be stopped?
While the Warriors have several players who can take over a game on any given night, the Raptors rely heavily on Leonard to be that guy. Leonard, who won the NBA Finals MVP with the San Antonio Spurs in 2014 at the age of 22, is averaging 31.2 points, 8.8 rebounds. 3.8 assists and 1.6 steals during a dominant run in this postseason. He recorded 11 games of 30 points or more before the Finals, a feat that only had been accomplished by Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon.
Leonard is dealing with a nagging leg injury, and it will be interesting to see if that plays any role in the Finals.
3. Curry’s legacy
Curry was not playing up to his standards for most of the playoffs -- until Durant went down with his injury. Now, Curry is back to vintage form, shooting 46.6 percent from the field and 42.7 percent from 3-point range in Durant’s absence, scoring at least 33 points in each of those games. Curry is still missing an NBA Finals MVP on his resume; Durant won the previous two and Andre Iguodala won in 2015. Curry enters the series as the betting favorite to win the award. Though Curry said he does not view it as something he must win, it may affect his place in the all-time NBA pantheon.
4. Help for Kawhi
The Raptors won both games this postseason when Leonard was held to fewer than 20 points. A large part of that -- in addition to his rebounding and defense -- was his supporting cast was able to step up. In Game 4 against the Bucks, in particular, Leonard was being double- and triple-teamed all game, but Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol knocked down shots and the Raptors got big performances off the bench from Normal Powell, Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka. VanVleet had three of his four double-digit scoring games of the playoffs in the final three games against the Bucks. If the Raptors can continue to get that kind of production from players other than Leonard, especially the bench, it could present problems for the Warriors.
5. Boogie factor
Warriors center DeMarcus “Boogie” Cousins has been out since Game 2 of the first round because of a left quad tear, but he was upgraded to “questionable” for Game 1 against the Raptors and said he is "pain-free." Even if he returns, he may be limited and find difficulty matched up with Gasol, who can move the ball around and spread the floor. The Warriors may benefit more from a smaller lineup with Draymond Green at center, which could throw Gasol off his game and force the Raptors to make adjustments. Cousins’ return would provide the Warriors with some depth, though, something they currently lack.