After winning three of the last four championships, most experts would have predicted that the Warriors would return to the NBA Finals.
The big conundrum was figuring out which team would make it out of the Eastern Conference. The Celtics were healthy and had solidified their roster. The Sixers were poised to build on their tanking years and take the next step. The Bucks, behind likely MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo, stormed through the regular season with the best record and a veteran roster.
But when all was said and done, it was the Raptors who prevailed, after beating the Bucks in six games. It makes for an intriguing Finals series, with the Warriors looking to deepen their dynasty and Kawhi Leonard and first-year coach Nick Nurse leading the Raptors.
To this point, the playoffs have been a bit unpredictable, but there are some issues worth following that will make it an even more intriguing offseason, as teams try to tinker to get back to this point next season.
Here are five takeaways from the playoffs — and a look at who will win the NBA title.
► The Warriors will win — again.
There’s no need for suspense in a situation that doesn’t warrant it. Even without Kevin Durant, the Warriors steamrolled the Trail Blazers after needing six games each against the Clippers and Rockets. DeMarcus Cousins could return to the lineup but it might not matter.
The Raptors needed seven games to dispatch of the Sixers and six against the Bucks, when the supporting cast behind Leonard showed some inexperience and reticence before coming out of their shell. That won’t work against the Warriors, who can make a double-digit run in the blink of an eye.
It’s good experience for next season, but Leonard by himself won’t be enough. Maybe if the Raptors could summon Sugar Ray Leonard, Leonard Fournette and Voshon Lenard, they might have a better shot.
Prediction: Warriors in five.
► If it’s not broken, breaking it could be worth it.
Raptors president Masai Ujiri took a big gamble last summer by trading DeMar DeRozan for Leonard and firing Dwane Casey, who was named coach of the year. He lauded them both on Wednesday in a pre-Finals press conference.
“I have to give Dwane Casey credit — he prepared us for this too. It’s not something that started in one year. I don’t know that a team can just start in one year,” Ujiri said. “I want to say Dwane Casey and DeMar DeRozan are part of this. They are part of our journey and how far this has come.
“Nick has done a great job of just taking it from there and building his own identity and building a team that he wanted to coach in a certain way and bringing us to this moment."
It has paid off — but not just because of those moves. LeBron James leaving the Eastern Conference and heading to the Lakers played a bigger role than anything else. The Sixers also made some big-time moves, in getting Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris, to try to make their mark. It’s not always going to work, but no one can fault the effort at going for it when the East was ripe for the taking.
On the other hand, the Trail Blazers kept everyone together and still advanced. Their roster had struggled in the playoffs year after year but made it to the West finals just by standing pat.
► Experience is the best teacher.
The Bucks got to the East finals after earlier exits the past two seasons. That progression is the roadmap for many teams both in the lottery and near the bottom of the playoff ladder trying to improve. That includes the Clippers, Nets and Pistons, who each lost in the first round.
There’s a dividing line between the teams who should tank and those who are going for it — and there are arguments for being on either side. Straddling the line, though, isn’t prudent and free agency this summer will help determine which teams will move up the ladder and how high they can go. The Nuggets took another important step forward, but the Celtics and Sixers could be in a holding pattern until they’re able to build on their rosters.
► The doors could be opening in both conferences.
The Warriors could lose Durant, Klay Thompson and DeMarcus Cousins in free agency, which could change things dramatically in the West. Even still, the Warriors likely will be the favorites to win next season as well. The Rockets, one of the top contenders this season, are looking to remake their entire roster, according to a report.
Free agency will have a profound effect on the hierarchy in each conference. Even if the Warriors win, it may not sway Durant from his year-to-year dalliances with the open market. Thompson likely will stay and the Warriors will just keep on chugging along.
In the East, Durant could help the Nets make a big jump to serious contender or get the Knicks to relevancy, as could the potential movements of Leonard, Kemba Walker, Kyrie Irving and others.
Golden State vs. Toronto
All games on ABC
Thursday: at Toronto, 9 p.m.
Sunday: at Toronto, 8 p.m.
Wednesday: at Golden State, 9 p.m.
Friday, June 7: at Golden State, 9 p.m.
x-Monday, June 10: at Toronto, 9 p.m.
x-Thursday, June 13: at Golden State, 9 p.m.
x-Sunday, June 16: at Toronto, 8 p.m.