TORONTO — It’s been 26 years since a major professional sports championship has been played in this vibrant and picturesque city, and for the past few weeks, Toronto has turned into an NBA-first town, perhaps not permanently, as the Raptors matriculated their way to the NBA Finals.
The reward for their improbable run, which consisted of four consecutive victories over the Milwaukee Bucks, the same team that embarrassed the Celtics in the previous round, is a matchup with the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors.
While the consensus before this season was that this Game 1 would be in Boston with the Celtics hosting the NBA Finals after a dominant playoff run, it is the Raptors who are hosting the league’s first championship game outside the United States.
Toronto reached this pinnacle on the back of stellar forward Kawhi Leonard, his acquisition was perhaps the first sign that the Celtics’ run to the Finals wouldn’t be as easy as expected. Leonard averaged 29.8 points, 9.5 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 2.2 steals in the Milwaukee series.
And he is the central figure of this series, especially with Kevin Durant out with a calf injury for at least the first two games. Can Leonard, with his focused disposition, his brilliant all-around game, his large hands that make the basketball look like an apple, and his propensity for clutch plays lead the Raptors to the promised land and shift the NBA power base to Canada?
And hovering over this series are the free agency statuses of Leonard, acquired with one year left on his contract last summer, and Durant, who is expected to at least seriously consider leaving the Golden State dynasty for a chance to start his own with a certain New York franchise.
The Warriors are enjoying their new environment after four straight matchups with the Cleveland Cavaliers and the constant LeBron James questions and playing a team they were so familiar with. The Warriors, like many NBA observers, have no idea how they will match up with the Raptors.
Game 1 will be a consummate feel-out game, with the Golden State eyes on Leonard and how he will attack its defense and attempt to disrupt its offense.
“He’s tough, obviously. He’s been playing amazing this whole playoff run and really all season,” two-time MVP Stephen Curry said of Leonard. “He’s always at his own pace, and never seems to get rushed or be in a hurry. He’s obviously physically gifted and strong. He can get to his spots, but he’s become a really good shooter. Off the dribble getting to a spot, rising up. And his counters are pretty solid, too. You take one thing away from him, he can shift directions, try to get a shoulder by you, get into the paint. He uses the entire floor really well.
“We have some beyond capable defenders to guard him, take on that one-on-one challenge. That’s going to be important. But like we always say and like what we always do when we’re executing at a high level, it’s just all five guys being on a string, being able to send help and rotate. And they have shooters as well that you have to be aware of. As of late, in the Milwaukee series, some guys got hot and played off Kawhi really well.”
Why were the Raptors so successful against the Bucks when the Celtics feel flat on their faces? In addition to Leonard’s dominance, Kyle Lowry was stellar in the series — 46.5 percent 3-point shooting — while the trio of Normal Powell, Fred VanVleet, and Marc Gasol combined for 41 3-pointers in the six games, which stretched the Bucks defense.
So Leonard’s comrades responded to the challenge, something Toronto hadn’t done in previous years when they melted against the mere flinch of James and the Cavaliers. The Raptors were intimidated. They promise they are ready for this confrontation.
“For me it’s all about winning, and when you get to the point where you make it to the NBA Finals, you won but you still got more to do,” Lowry said. “So getting here doesn’t do anything but getting here. We still want to try to win this.”
There is a theory the Raptors are catching the Warriors at a perfect time: coming off a 10-day break without a two-time NBA Finals MVP and playing in front of a raucous home crowd that will include superfan Drake.
Also, this could be the final days of the Golden State dynasty, with Durant, Klay Thompson, and DeMarcus Cousins unrestricted free agents. They were considered a vulnerable opponent until they stunned the Houston Rockets in Game 5 without Durant and then swept the overmatched Portland Trail Blazers.
Still, despite winning three of the past four NBA titles, the Warriors enter Game 1 as underdogs. Toronto’s four-game winning streak and the heroics of Leonard have obviously influence the oddmakers. But betting against the Warriors in June could be a major mistake.
Golden State is just getting used to facing a non-LeBron team in the Finals, in a city that is giddy to serve as a championship host and a country where the Bruins-Blues Stanley Cup final is the “other series.”
“It’s a different vibe. It’s a different feeling. It’s exciting. It’s great for the game,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said. “Different for us obviously, having been in Cleveland four straight years, but this is more the rule. That was the exception. You’re not supposed to go to The Finals four straight years and you’re definitely not, if you’re lucky enough to do that, you’re not supposed to play the same team four straight years. So that was really an oddity. This is more what The Finals normally feel like, where you’re going against a team you frankly don’t know that well and that you haven’t seen that often over the previous few years.”
Gary Washburn can be reached at email@example.com.