The Golden State Warriors are used to playing in the NBA Finals, and they will get the opportunity to win a fourth championship in the last five years.
But they will not have LeBron James attempting to stop them this time around. That's not necessarily a good thing, because the Eastern Conference champion Toronto Raptors have the explosive Kawhi Leonard and an excellent supporting cast in Pascal Siakam and Kyle Lowry as they attempt to bring the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy north of the U.S. border for the first time in league history.
The NBA Finals begin Thursday night in Toronto.
The Raptors overcame an 0-2 deficit in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Milwaukee Bucks to win the final four games of the series. The Raptors were down by double digits in the third quarter of Game 6 at Scotiabank Arena, but they went on a huge 26-3 run that bridged the third and fourth quarter. That was the key spurt in Toronto's clinching 100-94 victory over the Bucks.
Toronto head coach Nick Nurse was jubilant after the victory, and he looked ahead to facing the Warriors.
"They're one of the greatest teams in history," Nurse said, per the Associated Press (h/t ESPN.com). "It will be a tall task, but we'll try to figure it out."
While the win over Milwaukee was the most important victory in team history, beating Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and the Warriors will be a far greater task. Whether Golden State has sharp-shooting Kevin Durant for a majority of the series or not, head coach Steve Kerr's team has demonstrated it can win in all conditions.
Durant has not played since injuring his calf in Game 5 of the second-round series against the Houston Rockets. The Warriors won that game and the clinching Game 6 in that series, and they followed with a sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals.
2019 NBA Finals Schedule
All times Eastern.
Game 1: Thursday, May 30, at Toronto (9 p.m., ABC)
Game 2: Sunday, June 2, at Toronto (8 p.m., ABC)
Game 3: Wednesday, June 5, at Golden State (9 p.m., ABC)
Game 4: Friday, June 7, at Golden State (9 p.m., ABC)
Game 5: Monday, June 10, at Toronto (9 p.m., ABC)*
Game 6: Thursday, June 13, at Golden State (9 p.m., ABC)*
Game 7: Sunday, June 16 at, Toronto (8 p.m., ABC)*
If the oddsmakers are impressed by the Raptors and their victory over the Bucks, it is not showing in their perception of the championship series against the Warriors.
Golden State has been installed as a -285 favorite in the series, while the Raptors are +230 underdogs, per VegasInsider.com. Those backing the Warriors have to risk $285 to win $100, while Raptors supporters will put up $100 to win $230.
Warriors Win Series Opener on the Road
Home-court advantage is a lot to overcome in any NBA playoff series, and it is a particular issue in Game 1 of the championship round. The home team has won the series opener in 19 of the last 22 NBA Finals, including the last five in a row.
The Warriors were the home team in four of those games, beating the Cleveland Cavaliers each time. It may be a shock to the system for Golden State to open this series on the road, and a slow start in the first quarter will be the result.
However, that won't last long, and the Warriors will engage the hosts well before halftime. Golden State understands what it takes to win championship basketball games, and the Warriors will become the fourth road team to win the series opener in the last 23 years.
Slowing Down Leonard
One of the keys in this series will be the Warriors' ability to contain Leonard. The former Spur has dominated in this year's playoffs, averaging 31.2 points and 8.8 rebounds in 18 postseason games.
The Warriors are likely to start off with Thompson attempting to slow down Leonard, and Curry's partner in crime is one of the best defenders in the league. It's not about stopping Leonard, but if Thompson can hold The Claw to 24 points or less per game, that should be enough to keep the Raptors from taking the title away from the Warriors.
Even if Thompson cannot slow down Leonard and he dominates early in the series, Kerr has alternatives, and he may try to use Draymond Green to limit the superstar's production.
The prediction is that the Warriors will be able to keep Leonard below his playoff average in the NBA Finals.
The VanVleet Factor
Fred VanVleet is a thick-bodied guard who comes off the bench for head coach Nick Nurse and the Raptors.
VanVleet was a key in Toronto's crucial Game 5 victory in Milwaukee on Thursday night, connecting on seven of nine three-point attempts. That was a huge factor in the pivotal road win.
VanVleet was nearly as good in the clinching Game 6 triumph over the Bucks, contributing 14 points off the bench. He made four of five shots from behind the arc, giving him a remarkable 11 of 14 made three-pointers in the last two games of the series.
The prediction here is that the Warriors will concern themselves with Leonard, Siakam and Lowry, and they will also try to keep Marc Gasol and Norman Powell from going off.
VanVleet will not be one of their concerns, and he will have an opportunity to make key shots in the championship series.
Look for VanVleet to continue his successful run, and his shooting will play a key role in at least one win in this series.
The Raptors will come into this series with momentum, confidence and a healthy dose of enthusiasm. That might be enough against any other opponent besides the Warriors.
While there are no guarantees that Durant will come back in top form when he is able to return to this series, the combination of Curry, Thompson and Green will be good enough for the Warriors to earn their fourth championship in five years and their third straight title.
Championship experience pays off as Golden State wins the series in six games.