Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard led his team past the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals and into an NBA Finals showdown with the Golden State Warriors, who have won the past two titles.

It's not that the Golden State Warriors can't three-peat as champs when they travel to Toronto on Thursday night to begin the best-of-seven NBA Finals against the upstart Raptors.

It's just that the semi-dynastic Dubs won't.

And we have very recent history to show us why. As in, Raptors 131, Warriors 128 in overtime in Toronto on Nov. 29. Even more telling, try Toronto 113, Golden State 93, in Oakland on Dec. 12, which also meant a Raptors regular-season sweep.

Normally, such results may not mean much come the NBA playoffs — injuries and the too-long, 82-game regular-season schedule must be factored when assessing wins and losses. In the case of the Warriors — who have come to focus on the playoffs far more than the regular season the past year or two — one must consider motivation.

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Mark Wiedmer

And a lot of those variables may have been in play in these teams' first meeting of the season in Toronto, given that both Stephen Curry and Draymond Green sat that one out for the Dubs, though Kevin Durant did score 51 points.

But it's that second meeting in Oakland 13 days later — with Curry and Green back on the court and Raptors star Kawhi Leonard, who scored 37 in the earlier win, taking the night off — that should demand everyone's attention.


Consider this: Not only was Toronto playing its second game in two nights, having spanked the Clippers in Los Angeles the previous evening, but the Warriors surely wanted to avenge the earlier defeat. Yet with much to prove, Golden State got blown out on its home floor.

Does that mean such history will repeat in these NBA Finals? Not necessarily. But Durant, who totaled 81 points in those two defeats, is unlikely to play in either of the first two games in Toronto as he continues to recover from a lower leg injury. Nor is DeMarcus "Boogie" Cousins expected to help the Warriors in those first two contests, despite returning to practice last week for the first time since tearing a quadriceps muscle in mid-April.

At some point, though Golden State has certainly done a remarkable job of excelling while shorthanded to this point, that shortened bench is sure to hurt the Warriors even if the overwhelming loss of All-Star talent doesn't.

Of greater concern for Warrior Nation should be the potential matchups, however. Most favor Toronto, which has respectable depth, as well as outstanding length and athleticism on the front line, where Golden State is flat-out hurting without Cousins and Durant.

In Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Paschal Siakam, as well as the mercurial Leonard — who just might be the most complete player in the NBA when you consider both his offensive and defensive skills — the Raptors have the ability to dominate the Warriors in the paint, something the Clippers, Houston Rockets and Portland Trail Blazers all proved incapable of doing this postseason.

Then there are Toronto's guards, led by Kyle Lowry, who isn't always great but has tended to deliver the goods throughout this postseason whenever a big play is needed. Throw in reserve Fred VanVleet — who has bagged 14 of his past 17 3-point attempts since his son was born midway through the Eastern Conference finals — and there's a good chance that Golden State's perceived advantage in the backcourt with Curry and Klay Thompson may not be so great after all.

So while a very flawed train of thought has emerged over the past couple of weeks thanks to the Warriors going 6-0 in playoff games without Durant, the Dubs definitely need all hands on deck and healthy against Toronto. Failing that, it's difficult to see Golden State winning a third straight NBA championship and fourth in five seasons.

Still, the biggest reason to believe in the Raptors begins and ends with Leonard, and as much because of his defense as his offense. He is a longer, more athletic version of the Warriors' Green in terms of hounding an opponent's best scorer. He could quite easily befuddle Curry because of his height, Thompson because of his athleticism or Durant — assuming he returns to the court this postseason — because of his physicality.

No other team the Warriors have faced has such a defensive demon.

As the Raptors were celebrating their Eastern Conference championship over the Milwaukee Bucks late Saturday night, president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri told TNT of the club's acquisition of Leonard last summer: "He's the best player in the league and we're happy he's in Toronto."

When these NBA Finals conclude, they'll be even happier. Make it the Raptors in five.

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