There is some new blood in the NBA Finals. For the first time in five years, the championship round of the playoffs will not include the Cleveland Cavaliers or LeBron James.
With James in Los Angeles, after signing with the Lakers before the season, and out of the playoffs, there is a new Eastern Conference champion. The Toronto Raptors make their first-ever trip to the Finals, after defeating Milwaukee to win the East.
The Raptors lost to Cleveland in the Eastern Conference Finals three years ago, which previously had been the farthest they’d advanced in the postseason.
On the other side, however, things haven’t changed much. For the fifth straight year, the Golden State Warriors will represent the Western Conference. The Warriors are seeking to win their fourth title in five seasons. Golden State would also become just the fourth NBA team in the last 50 years to three-peat as champions, joining the 1991-93 Chicago Bulls, the 1996-98 Bulls and the 2000-02 Lakers.
Here’s a look at the participants in this year’s Finals with connections to the state of North Carolina.
Stephen Curry: One of the key building blocks of the Warriors dynasty has been the Davidson alumnus and Charlotte resident. Curry posted his highest scoring average (27.3 points per game) and 3-point accuracy (.437) since his second straight MVP season in 2015-16. Despite all of his production, Curry has surprisingly never won NBA Finals MVP. Andre Iguodala and Kevin Durant (twice) took those honors in the previous title seasons. He’s not concerned about that one hole in his resume, however. “It’s a special award that everybody wants to get, including myself,” Curry told the media after practice on Monday. “But at the end of the day, the first thing I do is look up and see, ‘Did you win or lose?’” This year’s Finals have special significance for Curry, since he spent his middle school years (1999 to 2002) in Toronto, while his father, Dell, played for the Raptors near the end of his career.
Quinn Cook: The former Duke guard and sole senior on the 2015 national champions hit an important milestone this season. With 74 games played in Golden State, Cook has now appeared in more NBA games (121) than G League games (111). Cook spent his first three years after college lighting up the NBA’s developmental minor league with a 23.3 points-per-game scoring average and earning brief cups of coffee with Dallas and New Orleans. Last year, he stuck with Golden State, playing in 33 games, starting 18 and scoring 9.5 points per game. His scoring is down this year (6.9 points), but he’s still a key reserve for the Warriors. Cook saw his minutes dwindle in the playoffs until an injury to Durant suddenly put him on the court for extended periods. “There’s a real trick to maintaining confidence level, conditioning level, your rhythm, your timing through all those times you’re not in the rotation. It’s a very hard job,” coach Steve Kerr told The Mercury News. “If you can do it, you’ve got a place in the league for a long game because coaches really value that.” Another milestone: Including his 28 (and counting) playoff games over the last two years, Cook now has more games in the NBA than at Duke.
Shaun Livingston: The 33-year-old was a Duke commit in the pre-one-and-done era, choosing to go straight to the pros instead of spending time with the Blue Devils. His 14 years in the league eventually brought him back to North Carolina, for a year with the Hornets in 2010-11, where he averaged 6.6 points in 73 games off the bench. He filled a similar role with the Warriors this year, scoring 4.0 points per game.
The Raptors also have a pair of players whose career roads took them through this state.
Danny Green: Like Cook, Green found his way into the league through the developmental minor league, eventually catching on with the San Antonio Spurs. Green became the member of the 2009 national champion Tar Heels with the most-successful NBA career, winning a ring with the Spurs in 2014. In his first year with the Raptors following a trade, he averaged 13.3 points per game, his most since 2015.
Jeremy Lin: The eight-year veteran signed with the Raptors in February after being waived by Atlanta. He averaged 7.0 points per game in 23 games with the Raptors, earning his first trip to the playoffs since 2015-16, when he scored 11.7 points per game in his only season in Charlotte. Lin’s minutes have been scarce in the playoffs, however.