Game 1 is set to begin at 9 p.m. ET at Toronto’s Scotiabank Arena, giving the Raptors home court advantage in the series after finishing with a better regular season record (58-24) than the Warriors (57-25).
This time last year, the Raptors were surrounded by questions after being swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in embarrassing fashion in the second round, the third year in a row losing to LeBron James.
Team President Masai Ujiri had made the bold move to fire coach Dwane Casey — the day after he was named coach of the year. The move was followed by the announcement of a blockbuster trade which sent All-Star and fan favourite DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio for former Defensive Player of the Year Kawhi Leonard.
The decisions sent the league and fans into a frenzy. DeRozan made it known he felt the move was a betrayal. A fan superimposed Ujiri’s face on the snake while others went so far as to say he had traded away half the fanbase to San Antonio.
But a year later, Ujiri, the Raptors, the city of Toronto, and all of Canada seem to be reaping the rewards.
“It’s surreal, but when you put the team together and we all dream of a championship, we all think about that, and I think the change was hard at the time. But we knew the kind of player we were getting, and if we overcame and we dealt with all the issues that we felt we could come together,” Ujiri said during a media day in Toronto on Wednesday.
“I think we were all positive about this kind of moment, and all dreamt about it.”
The team, led by the historic, record-setting play of Leonard, who is averaging 31.2 points, 8.8 rebounds and shooting just over 50 per cent, took out seventh-seed Orlando Magic in five games, followed by the Philadelphia Sixers in seven, clinching a Finals berth in six against the No. 1 seeded team in the league, Milwaukee Bucks.
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Kyle Lowry has finally beaten his reputation of being a meek playoff performer. The now-longest serving Raptors player has been dominant and not just by putting up numbers on the scoreboard.
“Our tone is set by Kyle Lowry. And I think that the way he plays, his attitude towards the game and winning,” Ujiri said.
Warriors three-point wizard Steph Curry called Lowry “tough and scrappy” during the media day.
“He always seems to be in the mix, whether it be taking a charge or getting a loose ball or getting a steal, knocking down a big shot,” he said.
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“I know he’s heard a lot of noise throughout these playoff runs in Toronto trying to get over the hump and whatnot, but he’s just a very solid basketball player that knows how to play the game and knows how to impact it.”
The team met twice during the regular season with Toronto taking both games, including one without Leonard, winning 131-128 and 113-93, respectively.
But Thursday night’s lineups will be much different. Since the two last faced off, the Raptors have added Marc Gasol for Jonas Valanciunas, Delon Wright and CJ Miles, lost OG Anunoby to an appendectomy (although he might make his return at some point in the series), and Leonard is now playing full-time at seemingly 100 per cent.
“It’s the big thing we’ve been talking about,” forward Jordan Bell said.
“We don’t really know these guys. We’ve watched a lot of film, but we’ve never played against the team they have now and they haven’t played the team we have now. It’s definitely a big difference so it kind of makes it more interesting.”
The Warriors will also be showing a different look with Kevin Durant missing for at least Game 1 due to his calf injury he suffered May 8 against the Houston Rockets. Bigman DeMarcus Cousins, who missed both regular season games and has been out since April 16 when he tore his quad in the Warriors’ series against the Los Angeles Clippers, is questionable for Thursday.
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“We’ve changed the way we play a little bit, made some tweaks,” Bogut said.
“We obviously go much deeper into our bench — 11, 12, 13 guys sometimes. They’re probably thinking the same thing. Game 1 is going to be a big feeling out game.”
Despite missing Durant, however, the Warriors have gone 5-0 since he went down.
Golden State has a loaded lineup. It includes some of the best defenders in the game such as Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, who will be tasked with trying to shut Leonard down.
“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. … But we have some capable – beyond capable – defenders to guard him.”
If the Warriors are able to shut down or even slow Leonard, the Raptors are hoping strong play from its other starters and deep bench will continue to unfold.
Fred VanVleet struggled at the start of the Bucks series, but the guard turned it up in the final three games where he shot 14-of-17 from three. VanVleet will most likely also be tasked with defending Curry.
Norm Powell played horribly and saw his minutes decrease from the start of the playoffs. However, in Game 2 against the Bucks when the Raptors got beat 105-92, Powell was the only glimmer of hope. He finished with 14 points on six-of-nine shooting. On his game, Powell provides the Raptors with speed and spacing, and can also be counted on to knock down a few threes — something the Raptors will need against the Warriors, who are known for their shots from distance.
Ticket prices for the series have been astronomical with courtside seats at a Toronto home game going for as high as US$30,000. Tickets quickly sold out when they were released, but there are still plenty available on secondary selling sites such as Seatgeek and StubHub.
The first two games of the best-of-seven series are Thursday and Sunday in Toronto before the teams head to Oakland for Games 3 and 4 next week.
—With files from The Canadian Press