OAKLAND -- The NBA Finals almost always is won by the team with the best player, if not by acclaim then certainly over the course of the series.
The Warriors are back-to-back champions largely because Kevin Durant generally was superior to Cavs superstar LeBron James in each of the last two seasons.
Durant’s availability for these Finals is uncertain, while James, now with the Lakers, failed to reach the postseason for the first time since 2005.
Which is to say from the moment the Warriors and Raptors tip off Game 1 in Toronto on Thursday night, the spotlights will shine brightest upon two players: Stephen Curry and Kawhi Leonard.
Understand, there are numerous factors on both sides. Draymond Green and Klay Thompson of the Warriors come to mind, as does Toronto’s Kyle Lowry. But it would be shocking if any of these three emerge as front-runners for Finals MVP voting.
But with Durant out of the picture for at least the first two games, Curry and Leonard are the leading candidates in that race and, moreover, to dictate the direction of the series. Containing Curry is the top priority for the Raptors, and containing Leonard is No. 1 for the Warriors.
“He's been a great player for a long time,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said of Leonard on Monday. “He's clearly one of the very best players in the NBA, and he's playing at an incredibly high level now.”
Leonard has been tremendous through 18 games this postseason, averaging 31.2 points on 50.7 percent shooting, including 38.8 percent from beyond the arc. He’s hitting clutch shots -- most notably a Game 7 buzzer-beater to oust the 76ers in the second round -- and playing his usual terrific defense.
Curry also has been splendid, nothing less than spectacular in the five games since Durant limped off the court with a strained calf in Game 5 of the conference semifinals against Houston. Curry is averaging 35.8 points and shooting 46.6 percent overall, 41.7 percent from deep.
If there is an edge here, it goes to Curry. He will have had the benefit of 10 days between games, while Leonard has played an NBA-high 696 minutes this postseason, with several spells of apparent discomfort.
Perhaps the biggest question is whether Raptors coach Nick Nurse will assign Leonard to defend Curry. It’s conceivable, as Leonard versatile enough to do it and might be the league’s best on-ball defender.
Asked Monday if he expects to confront Leonard’s defense at crucial times, Curry uttered four indisputable words: “I have no idea.” Truth be told, Curry should expect to see more of Fred VanVleet than either Leonard and Lowry.
Playing in only one of two games against Toronto this season, Curry was limited to 10 points on 3-of-12 shooting over 32 minutes in a 113-93 loss on Dec. 2 at Oracle Arena. He also committed four turnovers. Curry saw plenty of VanVleet in that game, and it worked in the Raptors' favor.
Though December stats are irrelevant in late May and early June, there is no doubt Curry remembers that and will be out to offer a rebuttal. If it leads to a Finals MVP, so be it.
“That's like secondary to that you win or you lose,” Curry said. “Probably even way down the list in terms of ... obviously there's legends that have won it and people that have done amazing things in the Finals and whatnot, and I say that not to demean the award. Literally it's a special award that everybody wants to get, including myself.
“But at the end of the day, the first thing I do is look up and see did you win or lose, and everybody that has a part in that feels pride about what you accomplished.”
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Do not, however, bring your Finals MVP chatter to Kerr.
“I’m not talking about that,” he said. “We're trying to win the damn series, so we're not talking about any awards. We just want to win four games.”
If the Warriors win four games, the award likely will come Curry’s way. So, too, could the spilling of champagne, another parade and, eventually, a fourth ring in five seasons.