TORONTO, Canada (AFP) - While the Golden State Warriors try to cement their legacy as the NBA’s greatest dynasty in half a century, the upstart Toronto Raptors made history just reaching the NBA Finals.
Thursday’s opener (Friday in PH) in the best-of-seven championship showdown will be the first NBA Finals game played outside the United States, the Canadian contest coming in the same city where the first league game was played in 1946.
Three-point sharpshooter Stephen Curry attempts to lead the injury-hit Warriors to their third consecutive NBA title, a feat last achieved by the Los Angeles Lakers in 2002, and Golden State could become the first team to win four crowns in five seasons since the 1969 Boston Celtics.
“Four more wins defines your season and brings you a championship,” Curry said. “We have to stay locked in.”
Blocking their path is a Raptors team powered by Kawhi Leonard, obtained in a trade with San Antonio last July. He has sparked a squad that was ousted by Cleveland in the playoffs each of the past three years, creating a breakthrough campaign.
“They are the champions. We’ve got to go in with mental focus and accept the challenge,” Leonard said. “We’re in the finals and we’re not done yet.”
Golden State’s five consecutive NBA Finals appearances is the second-best run in history trailing only Boston’s epic run from 1957-66.
“It hasn’t been done for a reason. It’s really difficult,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said.
“I can’t say enough about the competitive drive of these players and the culture they have built. This group has a fiber about them. When guys go down, they find a way to play harder and win. The experience of having won titles helps you come through.”
The Warriors have proven that during the NBA playoffs since forward Kevin Durant went down with a right calf injury three weeks ago. Center DeMarcus Cousins is also sidelined with a torn right quadriceps muscle suffered in the first round of the playoffs.
Golden State has risen to the challenge of losing two stars with a return to the style that made them a force before Durant arrived in 2016 — scrappy defensive work and pinpoint 3-point shooting courtesy of Curry and Klay Thompson plus expanded roles for Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala as well as other reserves.
“We set that culture from the beginning and it manifested itself during the season,” Curry said. “You’ve got to have guys step up. Everybody with a jersey on is going to help out.”
Green says Golden State’s well prepared reserve role players are a major reason the Warriors went 5-0 in the playoffs without Durant.
“We have a bunch of guys committed to winning,” he said. “No matter what bump in the road we hit, we know what the goal is. When you have that kind of commitment, great things happen.”
Kerr calls Green “a wrecking ball out there, destroying everything in his path” and has praised the efforts of 23-year-old backup center Kevon Looney as a “foundational piece” and “cornerstone” for the Warriors in the playoffs since Durant absent.
Looney has averaged 7.5 points and 4.9 rebounds and provided solid minutes inside, where he will test Spanish stars Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka for Toronto in the finals.
“We’re going to rely on him in the finals,” Kerr said. “He’s a hell of a player.”
The Raptors picked up Leonard after he sat out most of last season with a sore right quad and watched the 2014 NBA Finals Most Valuable Player revive the excitement for himself and the passionate Raptors fans who pack their arena and thousands who stand outside watching on giant televisions in “Jurassic Park.”
“He’s just so good,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “I’m seeing a level of competitive greatness out of him. It’s just competitive desire... it’s just his willing us to win.”
Iguodala figures to lead a team-based defensive effort against Leonard.
“He can create a shot out of nothing,” Gasol warned. “He’s a mismatch all around.”
The Raptors will counter against Curry with Kyle Lowry and two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Leonard unless Durant returns to change the dynamics for Golden State.
No matter how the series concludes, it could be the end of an era for both clubs with Durant and Leonard likely to be the top prizes on the free agent market by the end of June.