When the Toronto Raptors make their NBA Finals debut, they’ll be facing off against a team that’s had much more time to rest ahead of the series.
The Golden State Warriors claimed the Western Conference on May 20, defeating the Portland Trail Blazers in a tidy four games. The Raptors bested the Milwaukee Bucks in six games ending on Saturday.
Toronto players will be on their fifth day off, and the Warriors on their 10th, before they play Game 1 at Scotiabank Arena on Thursday night. But does that make a difference?
WATCH: Raptors fans line up at least 15 hours ahead of Game 1 tipoff
A long break means more time to recover from the physical toll of the sport, and presumably, it’s also a respite from the crushing mental pressure that pro-athletes face in the post-season.
On the other hand, there’s the idea that being away from the game experience for too long could cause a team to lose steam.
WATCH: Highlights from Raptors media day
At Raptors media day on Wednesday, Danny Green acknowledged both sides of the issue.
“You could say it helped them (the Warriors) a ton to get healthy or you can say they might be rusty from sitting off those days,” Green said. “It probably helped us quite a bit to have five days off. You don’t know, we might be rusty too.”
Warrior Andrew Bogut echoed Green’s sentiment and said you could argue both sides but at the end of the day, his team needed the extended break and aren’t too worried about it.
“Depending on who wins Game 1, you could write a story saying it helped or hindered us,” he said.
Dr. Tim Rindlisbacher, a sports physician at the Cleveland Clinic Canada in Toronto, said finishing a series earlier does provide a bit of an advantage.
“From a medical perspective, more rest is almost always better because everyone in the late part of the season — not even the playoffs — everyone is a little banged up with various things,” said Rindlisbacher, who is not involved in treating the team but was on the Raptors medical staff in 2004.
WATCH: Masai Ujiri talks load, injury management pertaining to Kawhi Leonard
He mentioned that time off doesn’t mean players are fully resting. The team is likely doing some form of activity every day in order to keep their minds and reflexes in the game, he said.
“They wouldn’t have heavy drills where they’re running and jumping hard and cutting, and they might get a few minutes of scrimmage, things like that.”
“When you’re physically playing a part of the game, then your ability to react and the muscle excitability, if you will, is optimized,” he said.
Sports psychologist Dr. Kate Hays said she’s not sure having more time off makes a difference in this “highest of high stakes” scenario.
“What it may do is that those who have had 10 days may have had more opportunity to focus on some other things for a while,” said Hays, who founded The Performing Edge clinic in Toronto. “And certainly… will have had an extra five days of not having their bodies be physically beaten up. And so that’s a slight advantage.”
“But even five days is just so much preferable to two in terms of being able to stand back, recover and know that this event is about to happen.”
WATCH: More highlights from Raptors media day
The mental strain on athletes is always significant, but expectations for both teams are high for a few different reasons in this case.
The Warriors, with household names like Steph Curry, have won the last two NBA Championships and are looking for a three-peat.
Toronto is the underdog, despite beating the Warriors twice in the regular season. The teams are almost equally matched in terms of season wins, with Toronto having one more victory under their belts.
But the biggest factor, of course, is that the Raptors are in the NBA Finals for the first time in their 23-season history. The team is now carrying the hopes of an energized city — and country — on their shoulders, with fans new and old rallying around the team.
Much of that burden rests on Kawhi Leonard. Hays said the star forward has demonstrated a great outlook.
“He’s really focusing on the present moment and a sense of accomplishment and having fun. And those are all terrific ways of being able to perform optimally,” she said.
Leonard joined the Raptors ahead of the 2018-2019 season and went on to place second in the NBA for overall points despite having been under a load management program for an injury.
WATCH: I was young in my first Finals, I’m more prepared now, Kawhi Leonard says
He spoke Wednesday about his mindset going into the finals for the second time of his career. Leonard said that while he was young the first time, he knows what to expect — and the game itself has not changed.
“You just got to go out there and play hard and live with the results,” he said.
— With files from Jessica Patton, Global News