TORONTO — When Game 1 of the NBA Finals tipped off Thursday, a superstar was missing from the league's marquee event for the first time in almost a decade.

LeBron James. 

As the Golden State Warriors and the Toronto Raptors commenced play, James' absence may have gone unnoticed in Scotiabank Arena but probably not in TV and NBA executive offices.

James was rendered a spectator for the first time since 2010 — that’s eight consecutive Finals — after missing the playoffs for the first time since 2005.

When James left the Cleveland Cavaliers for the Los Angeles Lakers last summer, it opened the door in the Eastern Conference for a different team to advance. It was the Raptors who capitalized, earning their first trip to the Finals in their 24-year existence.

Toronto point guard Kyle Lowry couldn’t even say James’ name during Tuesday's NBA Finals media day. “I've run into one guy for a while. We were given the opportunity – he left – and we beat a really good team in Milwaukee.”

The Warriors faced James four consecutive times in the Finals, losing to the Cavaliers in 2016. 

“It’s weird not playing against him,” Warriors guard Shaun Livingston said. “For so long, he was the hurdle we had to get over. It’s weird being somewhere else other than Cleveland in the Finals.”

It's a good bet the NBA is trying to assess how James' absence will impact TV ratings –which have dipped during this year's playoffs – and how his potentially extended absence from the Finals has reshaped the narrative.

Meanwhile, fans have watched as other players have made headlines.

“I haven’t thought about it at all to be honest with you,” Charles Barkley, an analyst for TNT, told USA TODAY Sports before Game 1. “No disrespect to LeBron. Everybody knows he’s a great player.

"(But) Kawhi Leonard and Steph Curry, their emergence, that to me says it all. Go back to the beginning of the playoffs. It started with Giannis (Antetokounmpo of the Milwaukee Bucks), the second round had Kawhi and then you thought Portland had a chance to get to the Finals when Kevin Durant gets hurt. Steph goes crazy.

"There have been some amazing story lines, and that’s all I’ve been thinking about.”

SportsPulse: The Raptors quieted the experts who felt this would be a quick series by beating the Warriors in Game 1. Now we have to ask: Is Golden State desperate to get Kevin Durant back?

Viewership down for playoffs

The NBA is armed with data showing this hockey-mad country actually cares about basketball, too. According to Canada TV ratings supplied by Numeris:

► More than one-third of TV viewers in Canada watched Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals between the Raptors and Bucks.

► The 2018-19 NBA season was the most-watched NBA regular season in Canada, with viewership up 29% year-over-year across Sportsnet and TSN.

But the TV audience so far in the playoffs on ESPN, TNT and NBA TV has averaged 3.95 million viewers, a 16% dip from 2018 over the same period, according to Nielsen.

Thursday’s Game 1 had an overnight rating of 10.1, making it the lowest-rated Finals opener since 2009 and down 18% from the first game of last year’s final. The average audience estimate for the broadcast on ABC is expected to be released later Friday.

The drop, however, can’t all be attributed to James. The conference finals had other factors. 

► The Raptors’ home market isn’t counted since the viewership totals don’t include Canada. Toronto’s opponent, the Bucks, are based in the 36th-largest media market, according to Nielsen.

The 2018 Eastern Conference finals featured Boston (No. 9 media market) and James-led Cleveland (No. 19), a series that averaged 8.4 million viewers on ESPN. TNT – which broadcast this year’s Eastern Conference finals and had the highest-rated night on cable 19 times since the start of the playoffs – averaged 5.7 million viewers.

► The Western Conference finals between the Warriors and Trail Blazers was a sweep, so hardly the compelling seven-game series of 2018 between the Warriors and Rockets. Last year’s finals averaged 9.4 million viewers on TNT compared to an average of 7.7 million viewers on ESPN this year.

“We’re very happy with where we are,’’ NBA Commissioner Adam Silver told WFAN radio host Mike Francesa this week. “We miss LeBron. The good news is he’s not gone. He had an (groin) injury, the team struggled and my sense is he’ll be back in top form next season.’’

That may be true, but there’s no evidence LeBron and the Lakers will reach the Finals anytime soon. And so the NBA is waiting to measure the impact of a new and indefinite reality — the Finals without LeBron.

Opportunity in the East

James and his teams were fixtures in the NBA Finals. You could count on either Miami or Cleveland playing in June, and James competing for championships.

During that span, he won three titles, was named Finals MVP three times and boosted TV ratings.

James played in eight of the 10 highest-rated Finals games televised by ABC, according to Nielsen. And ABC's telecast of the Cavaliers’ championship-clinching win over the Warriors in 2016 drew 31 million viewers, making it the second most-watched basketball game since Game 6 of the 1998 Finals between the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz, according to Sports Media Watch.

LeBron James and Shaun Livingston mix it up in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals. (Photo: Bob Donnan, USA TODAY Sports)

James' impact on the NBA postseason is reflected in more than TV ratings.

He dismantled teams in the Eastern Conference and forced them to choose different strategies – fire coaches, trade for different players, implement fresh setups – in an effort to stop him.

The Bulls could never get past James, and Tom Thibodeau lost his job after losing to the Cavaliers in 2015. Mike Budenholzer, then as coach of the Atlanta Hawks, lost in sweeps in consecutive seasons. When the Hawks went into rebuild mode, Budenholzer left Atlanta for Milwaukee.

The Indiana Pacers lost to James’ Heat teams three consecutive seasons, and Frank Vogel ended up losing his job in 2016. Dwane Casey’s Raptors lost to the Cavs in three consecutive playoffs, culminating in Casey’s dismissal following the 2018 playoffs.

But when James left the Eastern Conference for the Lakers, it opened the door for another team to play in the Finals. Milwaukee, Toronto, the Philadelphia 76ers and the Boston Celtics were the top four seeds, and all believed they could advance to the Finals without James in their way.

The Raptors took advantage, and now James and the rest of the teams in the Eastern Conference are home. 

That's not to say he isn't involved. James has been active on social media, and it’s clear he’s watching. He’s also spending quality time with his family, including watching his sons play basketball.

His Taco Tuesday post on Instagram is absurdly funny. In another Instagram post, James is smoking cigars with Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and Tristan Thompson.

The smoke has yet to clear on the impact of James' absence here.

Contributing: A.J. Perez

Follow Josh Peter on Twitter @joshlpeter11 and Jeff Zillgitt @JeffZillgitt

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