TORONTO • While the Golden State Warriors try to cement their legacy as the National Basketball Association's (NBA) greatest dynasty in half a century, the upstart Toronto Raptors made history just by reaching the NBA Finals.
Today's opener in the best-of-seven championship showdown will be the first NBA Finals game played outside the United States, the contest in Toronto coming in the same city where the first league game was played in 1946.
Star point guard Stephen Curry attempts to lead the injury-hit Warriors to their third consecutive NBA title, a feat last achieved by the Los Angeles Lakers in 2002, and Golden State could become the first team to win four crowns in five seasons since the 1969 Boston Celtics.
"Four more wins define your season and brings you a championship," Curry said. "We have to stay locked in."
Blocking their path is a Raptors team powered by Kawhi Leonard, obtained in a trade with San Antonio last July. He has sparked a squad that was ousted by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the play-offs each of the past three years, creating a breakthrough campaign.
"They are the champions. We've got to go in with mental focus and accept the challenge," Leonard said. "We're in the Finals and we're not done yet."
Golden State's five consecutive NBA Finals appearances is the second-best run in history, trailing only Boston's epic run from 1957-66.
Golden State Warriors' record since losing Kevin Durant to a calf injury in Game 5 of the Western Conference semi-finals against Houston. They won 4-2 before sweeping Portland 4-0 in the Conference Finals.
The team from Oakland has risen to the challenge of losing two stars with a return to the style that made them a force before Kevin Durant arrived in 2016 - scrappy defensive work and pinpoint three-point shooting courtesy of Curry and Klay Thompson, plus expanded roles for Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala as well as other reserves.
Durant has been out with a right calf injury three weeks ago, although he has reportedly travelled with the team to Toronto in a bid to be fit for Game 2 on Sunday.
Centre DeMarcus Cousins is also sidelined with a torn right quadriceps muscle suffered in the first round of the play-offs.
"You've got to have guys step up. Everybody with a jersey on is going to help out," Curry said.
"We set that culture from the beginning and it manifested itself during the season."
Green says Golden State's well prepared reserve role players are a major reason the Warriors went 5-0 in the play-offs without Durant. "We have a bunch of guys committed to winning," he said.
"No matter what bump in the road we hit, we know what the goal is. When you have that kind of commitment, great things happen."
The Raptors will hope to counter against Curry with Kyle Lowry and two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year Leonard.
"He's just so good," Raptors coach Nick Nurse said of Leonard, who is averaging 31.2 points in the post-season after posting 26.6 a game in the regular season.
"I'm seeing a level of competitive greatness out of him. It's just competitive desire... It's just his willing us to win."
No matter how the series goes, it could be the end of an era for both clubs with Durant and Leonard likely to be the top prizes on the free agent market by the end of June.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS