Kawhi Leonard and Steph Curry

Kawhi Leonard and Steph Curry have led their teams to the NBA Finals. The two superstars will battle for the Larry O’Brien Championship Trophy beginning Thursday night in Toronto.

And then there were two.

More than seven months after the season opener, only two teams remain in the chase to be crowned NBA champions. The Golden State Warriors and the Toronto Raptors are set to face off Thursday night in Game 1 of the NBA Finals.

The two teams have had vastly different journeys to the reach this moment. For the Warriors, this is the place they’re supposed to be. The Warriors added DeMarcus Cousins to a lineup that already featured four All-Star caliber players. Golden State was widely expected to waltz through the season and the playoffs. On paper, the talent assembled in Oakland is one of the greatest teams ever assembled.

Of course, basketball isn’t played on paper. It’s played in arenas. It appears that the basketball gods weren’t exactly feeling the idea of the Golden State Globetrotters, so they sprinkled a healthy dash of adversity into the mix for the defending champions.

First, there was the blowup between Draymond Green and Kevin Durant in November. Green allegedly told Durant, “We don’t need you. We won without you. Leave!” The Warriors suspended Green for one game without pay for conduct detrimental to the team due to the verbal altercation.

Next, Cousins went down indefinitely with a torn left quadriceps muscle. Since Cousins was the newest addition to the team, nobody batted an eye to his injury. Instead of five perennial All-Stars, the team would have to make due with four.

Then the Warriors got hit with the real test. Kevin Durant, arguably the best basketball player on the planet, went down with an injury. That’s when things got interesting.

Many fans and sports personalities leapt off the Warriors’ bandwagon. One by one they proclaimed the team could not oust the Houston Rockets without “KD,” much less win a title. However, Green stepped up his game in a major way. The Warriors also have two guys by the names of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson who are really good at basketball.

Curry quickly reminded the league why he won back-to-back MVPs in the 2015 and 2016 seasons. Anybody who forgot about Klay had their memories jogged as Thompson increased his average from 16.5 points before Durant’s injury to 23.3 points afterwards. In spite of the doubt and derision, the Warriors have not lost a game since Durant went down.

For the Raptors, the story is not about which players are injured, but rather which one is not.

Injuries held Kawhi Leonard to just nine games during the 2017-18 season for the San Antonio Spurs. After he was traded to the Toronto Raptors during the offseason, Leonard bounced back to play 60 games this season. He averaged career highs of 26.6 points and 7.3 rebounds per game.

In the playoffs, Leonard has elevated his game to the next level. He has averaged 31.2 points, 8.8 rebounds and 3.8 assists while helping to oust the Orlando Magic, Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks.

Against the 76ers, Leonard hit an epic, four-bounce buzzer beater that will live on in playoff replays forever. That shot was the stuff that legends are made of.

In the matchup against the Bucks, “The Claw” faced off against the Giannis Antetokounmpo, one of the best and brightest young stars the NBA has to offer. While many expected the Eastern Conference Finals to be a coronation of Antetokounmpo, Leonard turned it into a master class.

The “Greek Freak” struggled under the pressure of the moment (and Leonard’s stellar defense). Meanwhile, the cornrowed, quiet guy with the awkward laugh and New Balance kicks was clearly the best player in the series. He made key stops on defense, big shots on the offense and willed his team to victory over the only 60-win team in the NBA this season.

The “King of the North” also became the new king of the East.

Just by reaching the Finals, Leonard has cemented his spot as one of the top-five players in the NBA. In Toronto, he became an instant legend by leading the Raptors team to its first Finals appearance in franchise history. During his first season with the team, Leonard has led Toronto to a place that Vince Carter, Tracy McGrady and DeMar DeRozan failed to reach.

While the Raptors don’t have five recent All-Stars on the roster, the team can hardly be considered chopped liver. Point guard Kyle Lowry is a five-time All-Star and center Marc Gasol is a three-time All-Star. If Durant and Cousins start the Finals on the sidelines, as expected, that means that talent pool is fairly even.

Leonard already climbed Mount Antetokounmpo. Armed with home court advantage, can he now climb the mountain of talent in The Bay?

While it’s certainly not impossible, it is highly improbable. Even though Leonard has been to the Promised Land, winning a championship with the Spurs in 2014, most of his teammates have not.

The Warriors are old hats at competing for NBA titles. Curry, Thompson and Green are all peaking at the right time. If Durant never suits up this series, the Warriors can still fall back on the confidence on winning a ring without him.

There is a chance the Warriors will come out cold for Game 1 after such a lengthy layoff. I wouldn’t put it past the Raptors to smack them in the mouth and pull off a sizable victory in the series opener. However, the Warriors team is just too strong, too experienced and too locked-in.

Cue up the meme generators. Kawhi Leonard, Sugar Ray Leonard, Leonard Kravitz – it doesn’t matter. Warriors in five!

Be sure to check In the Clutch online and also follow Ishmael on Twitter @ishcreates. Subscribe to The St. Louis American’s YouTube page to see bi-weekly sports videos starring Ishmael and Melvin Moore at youtube.com/stlamericanvideo.

Ishmael H. Sistrunk is a columnist and the website coordinator for the St. Louis American and www.stlamerican.com.

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