The Golden State Warriors will be eyeing a third successive crown when they take on the Toronto Raptors in the NBA Finals.
Steph Curry, Kevin Durant et al have proved too formidable for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the best-of-seven showpiece in the last two years, but now face a fresh challenge as they target a hat-trick of titles.
Here, we take a look at some of the talking points ahead of the showdown.
Who Are The Favourites?
On paper, a team with the heavyweights Golden State have in their ranks mean they would normally be regarded as the team to beat, but Durant’s calf injury will preclude his involvement in the opening game of the series.
Fellow NBA All-Star DeMarcus Cousins is also a doubt because of a torn quadriceps muscle, meaning the odds have shifted marginally towards Toronto for Thursday’s opening encounter, which the Raptors will host along with games two, five and seven in the series.
Kevin Durant’s Injury
Durant, whose future with the Warriors beyond this season is in question, has been MVP in the championship series for the last two years so it would appear his unavailability, for the opening match at least, is a boost for the Raptors.
However, the Warriors are on a six-match winning streak since Durant has been sidelined, including a 4-0 sweep of the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference decider, so his absence has not been keenly felt.
Who Are The Ones To Watch?
The presence of LeBron James does not loom large over the season-ending tie for the first time in nine years, allowing others the opportunity to step out of his considerable shadow.
Two-time NBA MVP Curry is pivotal for Golden State in the initial absence of Durant while Klay Thompson has had another good season.
The Raptors have been enhanced by the acquisitions of Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green to their ranks from the San Antonio Spurs last year.
Can Toronto Handle The Pressure?
Division champions in five of the last six seasons, this year marks the first time the Raptors have collected the Eastern Conference title following a hard-fought battle against the Milwaukee Bucks, the top seeds.
As such, the next few weeks will be the biggest in the franchise’s history since their inception into the NBA as an expansion team in 1995.
With former NBA champions Leonard and Green in their ranks, they should have the experience to ease any nerves.
Regular Season vs Playoffs
Toronto may have a slight mental edge after overcoming the Warriors in both of their regular season meetings.
They edged the first encounter, 131-128 after overtime, in November despite Durant pouring in 51 points for the defending NBA champions, who were downed 113-93 the following month.
However, Golden State are in the Finals for the fifth straight year and will undoubtedly prove a tougher opponent on the grandest stage.