The stage is set - the Golden State Warriors and Toronto Raptors will face off in the 2019 NBA Finals, vying for an opportunity to hoist the Larry O'Brien trophy.
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As most know by now, it's a historic series for the Warriors and Raptors, but for very different reasons.
Golden State has entered a historic realm by making its fifth consecutive Finals appearance and seeks to join elite company by becoming just the sixth team to win at least three titles in a row. Toronto, on the other hand, is making the first Finals appearance in franchise history and looks to show that they're more than just happy to be there.
What can we expect in this series?
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While the Warriors championship pedigree is worth revering, it's a new year and they face a Finals opponent other than the Cavs for the first time in the Steve Kerr era.
Yes, Golden State shifts into another gear in the postseason and are riding an insane wave of momentum after losing superstar Kevin Durant to a calf injury but specific to this upcoming series, what we can learn the most from are the two most recent meetings between Toronto and Golden State.
It's been over five months since the two teams last played one another but the Raptors earned an impressive regular-season sweep of the Warriors, winning two very different games in very different ways.
Here's what we did - and didn't - learn from those meetings.
Game 1 | Game 2 | What we didn't learn
Nov. 29, 2018 - Raptors 131, Warriors 128 (OT)
What We Learned:
• Kevin Durant is an unstoppable force
To be fair, we knew this already, but games like these serve as reminders of just how special of a performer KD is. The reigning back-to-back Finals MVP put up an efficient 51 points (on 18-for-31 shooting), adding 11 rebounds and six assists on the night.
Down the stretch, Durant found ways to score despite the all-league defence played by Kawhi Leonard, tying the game with two big 3-pointers in the final minute.
It was one of the more memorable duels between two players that didn't shy away from going at and guarding one another on either end of the floor, an exchange that reminded us…
• Kawhi Leonard is really back.
Heading into this meeting, Kawhi had impressed early on, showing exactly why he was brought in with big scoring performances against the Celtics and 76ers. This, however, was his biggest test yet.
It was in this game that Kawhi showed his true value as arguably the league's best two-way player as he was tasked with making things difficult for a force like Durant while being the team's No. 1 option. Leonard was also efficient, scoring 37 points (on 14-for-24 shooting) to lead the way for Toronto, knocking down some big shots towards the end of regulation - a sign of things to come.
• The importance of Stephen Curry and Draymond Green
Even though Curry sat with an adductor issue and a troublesome toe kept Green sidelined, the Warriors still had a chance to win this game, clawing back from 18 down to force overtime.
With peak Green and Curry, there's no chance this team falls behind by that much.
Durant got his, as did Klay Thompson (23 points, 9-20 shooting), but Jonas Jerebko (20 points) was the only other Warrior to finish in double figures. Green's playmaking and Curry's gravity make things much easier for other Warriors on the offensive end, meaning a more even distribution of scoring and an obviously more difficult team to guard.
• Pascal Siakam can be a star
Prior to the season, many knew that the Raptors would see a much improved Pascal Siakam but no one knew the extent of his improvement.
With the back-to-back defending champs in town, Siakam's star shined as bright as it ever had up to that point in his young NBA career. The third-year forward would finish with a then-career-high of 26 points, shooting 8-for-10 from the field, 3-for-4 from beyond the arc and 7-for-8 from the charity stripe, and his best work came in the clutch.
Siakam scored seven of the Raptors 12 points in the extra frame to help his team seal the victory. It was a sign of things to come, as he has since set a new career-high four times.
Dec. 12, 2018 - Raptors 113, Warriors 93
What We Learned:
• The Raptors can win at Oracle
They only play there once a year, but prior to this meeting, the Raptors last win in the Bay Area came in Feb. 2004 - Golden State had won 13-straight home games over Toronto.
The Raptors have home court advantage in this series but history shows that champions must be able to win on the road as well. Erasing the 14-year history of losses at Oracle in Dec. could pay dividends in June.
• Stephen Curry actually has off nights
Just about all of us are guilty of assuming that every single shot attempt from Steph Curry is going in. Percentages and logic would say otherwise, but Curry's seemingly supernatural shooting ability can cause you to throw logic out of the window.
In the 20-point loss, Curry finished with just 10 points, shooting 3-for-12 from the field and 2-for-8 from beyond the arc in 33 minutes of action. As a team, the Warriors shot 6-for-26 from 3-point range, emphasizing that they go as Steph does.
• A Lowry-VanVleet backcourt can work in spurts vs. Golden State
With Kawhi Leonard sidelined, Nick Nurse went with a starting backcourt of Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet and elected to slide Danny Green to the forward position.
Lowry led the way for Toronto with team-highs in points (23) and assists (12) while VanVleet added 10 points (on 4-for-8 shooting) in 28 minutes of action. As the Lowry-VanVleet backcourt paid major dividends for the Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals, this game would suggest that Nurse can use this lineup against the Splash Brothers as it yielded great success in the convincing win.
• Golden State can be sloppy with the ball
Perhaps the most eye-popping stat from this one is the turnovers - Golden State committed 19 on the game, a figure it only surpassed four times over the entire season.
The Raptors made them pay by scoring 17 points off of the takeaways, but the biggest benefit of forcing an abundance of turnovers is limiting the Warriors' offensive possessions which, in turn, detracts from the well-oiled machine that is their offence.
What we didn't learn
• What this matchup looks like at full strength
In fairness, we likely still won't, but the absences from the regular season meetings were too major to overlook.
The two meetings happened so early in the season, DeMarcus Cousins was not yet close to nearing his return. While he will miss at least Game 1 of the NBA Finals, he is on track to play in the series.
In addition to Cousins, the Warriors were without Stephen Curry and Draymond Green in the first meeting while Andre Iguodala and Damian Jones sat in the second.
For the Raptors, Norman Powell missed both meetings while Kawhi Leonard joined him on the inactive list in the second meeting. Now, OG Anunoby is unlikely to play in the Finals.
• How this version of Draymond Green impacts a matchup
While he dished out seven assists and grabbed five boards, Green scored just two points (on 1-for-5 shooting) in his lone meeting with the Raptors this year.
After shedding some weight and shifting into his playoff gear, Green looks better than ever, as his play helped propel the Warriors to a series sweep over the Blazers without Durant. It's clear that Draymond is an X-Factor for the Warriors and he is bound to put his fingerprint on this series.
• The value of Marc Gasol vs. the Warriors
While early meetings meant the Warriors' starting centre wasn't healthy yet, the Raptors had yet to acquire theirs.
Marc Gasol has made his presence felt on both ends of the floor since Toronto acquired him at the trade deadline; he knocked down big shots in the Eastern Conference Finals and has done a superb defensive job on opposing big men throughout the series.
Gasol, a one-time Defensive Player of the Year, will likely be tasked with guarding plenty of pick-and-roll actions and must overcome some athletic limitations to make things difficult for the Warriors offensive weapons.
He's answered the call so many times before, it wouldn't come as a surprise if he did it on the biggest stage.