The series doesn’t start until the home-team loses a game: Raptors down 2-1
Overtime seemed to be prewritten. With Lowry and Powell out, the Raptors looked tired. Marc Gasol had already played 16 consecutive minutes, five of them with five fouls. Pascal Siakam was playing well but facing heavy attention from Antetokounmpo on defence. Kawhi Leonard, meanwhile, had appeared to injure himself early in the first quarter, limped through most of the game and then insisted on staying in when an extra breather would have coincided with Antetokounmpo returning to the floor. The story of Game 1 was that the Raptors were fatigued and ran out of gas; here, they looked set to run out of gas, bodies or both.
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
Of course, Leonard had a lot left in the tank, or willed himself to play like he did. He swallowed an Antetokounmpo drive to force a jump-ball moments after Green hit his lone field goal of the night, then rattled in a tough elbow jumper. He missed a pair of potential winners late, though, then committed a turnover early in the second overtime, right after Antetokounmpo had fouled out on an iffy block-charge with Siakam. All part of Leonard’s journey, it seems, as it set the stage for an emphatic transition dunk in the second extra period, a beautiful behind-the-back pass to send Gasol to the free-throw line, another steal he took the other way for a dunk and a game-sealing bucket with 32 seconds to play. With the number of key pieces fouled out, exhausted or struggling, Leonard looked the part of last man standing, though he stood gingerly between outbursts of the phenomenal across his career-high 52 minutes.
Like I said, it is difficult to talk about any play of that game without talking about every play of that game. The nature of a 118-112 double-overtime final is that every play mattered immensely. We’re this far in and haven’t even mentioned Gasol sullying a near-perfect performance with one of the most ill-advised and patently hilarious pass attempts of the postseason. (Nor have we mentioned just Brook Lopez’s 2018-19 existence, in general.) It was incredibly high drama. It was not, however, the cleanest or best-executed of games. You hear often of the playoffs being wars of attrition, and rarely has a game looked so much the part.
By the time Antetokounmpo fouled out a few seconds into the second overtime, the game had devolved into theatre of the absurd. How do we react to a game without meaning? Where our preconceived notions of the terms of engagement have been eroded or even reversed? If someone outside of the human condition were guiding the outcome, they were doing so with the intention to menace. There were a comedy of errors and the horrors of so many poor offensive possessions. It reached a point where either outcome would be equally absurd – it would not have been fitting for a very good Raptors team to fall behind 3-0 on a rare off-scoring night for Antetokounmpo, nor would it make much sense for them to escape with a victory where two of their three best players in the series so far were unavailable in the highest-leverage moments. Writers were killing off key characters simply for dramatic effect, not unlike something else people may have been watching Sunday.
There was no window for both teams to escape feeling fine with the outcome, as some close games offer. The Bucks have the benefit of a series lead, sure, and they remain mostly in control. They’ve also shown themselves beatable, some of the cracks apparent in a revealing blowout win in Game 2 manifesting with greater marginal cost here. It was a must-win for the Raptors, almost literally as must-win as a game can get without a third loss already on the ledger in a series. Once three players had fouled out and underperformers were logging heavy minutes and the Raptors had twice blown two-possession leads in the final minute of deciding frames, all of those bets were off.
Three – Everything: In addition to carrying the scoring load, Leonard was also assigned the challenge of guarding Antetokounmpo. Granted, the Raptors aggressively blitzed the MVP finalist on the block with hard double teams, which led to eight turnovers, but Leonard also did yeoman’s work to keep Antetokounmpo off the offensive glass, keep him off the line, and to bother his shots as best as possible to limit him to just 5-of-16 shooting. The Bucks will undoubtedly scour the tape and come prepared with a better strategy to beat the doubles going forward, but in this game at least, the Raptors got the job done.
That was the key, more than any line-up change Raptors head coach Nick Nurse made or contemplated: Would whoever was on the floor eating up those minutes in whatever configuration find a way to play hard and play free and play without fear?
Enough did, enough times, and the Raptors survived.
With their collective heels hanging over the cliff, Nurse needed his club to push first rather than get knocked over the edge and start a tumble down a crevasse with no obvious bottom. Step wrong and all you know was the landing was going to hurt, the kind of pain that offers little hope of recovery and scars that can last years.
The Raptors responded, individually and collectively, after the Bucks appeared poised to shove them out of the playoffs with a handy sweep of Toronto in two games back in Milwaukee.
There is no arguing that.
Home court? Pride? Desperation? Whatever the inspiration, the Raptors turned in by far their best defensive effort of the series – maybe of the post-season, considering the Bucks’ status as an emerging juggernaut.
Rather than hope Leonard could save them alone offensively, they got a wide spectrum of contributions in various forms – all the more remarkable given their rotation is capped out at seven players. They initiated the attack, didn’t get knocked off balance when the Bucks punched back and were able to keep Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo largely in check – no small feat considering he’s the favourite for the NBA MVP award this summer.
If anyone claims that they saw this coming before the season began, they’re being disingenuous, because Antetokounmpo and his teammates didn’t foresee them rolling to the league’s best record and leapfrogging other dues-paying contenders to emerge as a favorite. “Nobody did. Nobody did. We knew we was going to be good,” Eric Bledsoe told The Athletic, “but we didn’t know we was going to be this good.”
When he joined the Bucks in a trade with Phoenix last season, Bledsoe immediately picked up that something special could be brewing in Milwaukee. The young team just needed some time, and what has proven to be true this season, a coach who could instill some discipline, steadiness and details-oriented habits. Coach of the Year finalist Mike Budenholzer, a product of the San Antonio Spurs coaching factory, brought in a system that exploited the strengths of the Bucks’ talents and masked the rest.
“The biggest thing was Bud coming in, giving everybody confidence,” said Bledsoe, who bypassed testing the free agent market and agreed to a four-year, $70 million extension in March, because of his desire to remain part of a franchise headed somewhere. “I been knew before then. We’ve got a great group of guys who want to see people, other people do good, and not just themselves. And that’s very rare in this league. With a bunch of great, talented players everybody wants to see somebody else succeed, so that’s the biggest thing with us.”
The Bucks might seem like an overnight success but they were built for this moment, built to counter the small ball — or rather skill ball — revolution led by the likes of Golden State and Houston. Former Milwaukee general manager John Hammond, who has since moved on to Orlando, built a roster that was predicated on lineups that featured giants with go-go-gadget arms and hummingbird hands. Hammond wanted to go big, and in an example of how they created their own luck, Antetokounmpo worked his way up from raw talent with upside to unstoppable force expected to snag his first MVP.
“I can’t say it was frustrating,” Khris Middleton said of the franchise’s growth over the previous five years, “we just weren’t good. I mean, we worked for it. Of course, we had disappointing years and disappointing nights, but we worked for it. We knew had to get better in order to get where we wanted to get to.”
“We could’ve been up 3-0,” Antetokounmpo said of the series tally. “We didn’t play well. … I never expected this series to be easy.”
Antetokounmpo was the last player to leave the locker room Sunday night. He sat in front of his locker, sipping a blue Gatorade and answering questions from lingering reporters. When asked if he was disappointed in how he played in Game 3, though, he stood up.
“Hell no,” Antetokounmpo told ESPN, pushing himself up from the locker bench. He began to walk away, before turning back around and explaining further.
“I am Giannis,” Antetokounmpo said, putting his hand on his chest. “What I have done in my life so far — sending money to my family, put my brothers in private schools, taking care of family in Nigeria and Greece. Disappointed in a game? I’d be disappointed in myself if I was disappointed.”
In other words: It is just basketball. Antetokounmpo knows it. That doesn’t make him crave winning any less.
On the back wall of the visiting locker room, an 8-by-11-inch piece of white paper had been taped to the wall. Antetokounmpo had written “6” on it with a black marker. The paper counts down the number of wins the Bucks need to capture the NBA championship.
For now, the number will stay at six.
As they returned to their homecourt, it was expected that the Toronto Raptors would come out swinging. Head Coach Nick Nurse had hinted at possible lineup changes, but it was more of a smoke screen as he stuck with his same starting lineup but had different defensive matchup. It started well as the Raptors got off to a fast start and forced multiple Bucks turnovers. Milwaukee’s sloppy play combined with good offensive performances from Marc Gasol and Norm Powell had the Raptors cruising in the first. Milwaukee was able to get a handle on the game in the second quarter but still trailed heading into halftime. Milwaukee improved in the third half thanks to Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon and George Hill to slim the lead to just two heading into the 4th. Giannis was able to get a quick five points and Milwaukee was able to tie the game at some point. Both teams traded baskets and Toronto extend the lead to five with a little over a minute left. Khris Middleton tied the game at 96 and forced the game into overtime! Both teams couldn’t get a basket until Danny Green hit a three which was followed by a George Hill three. Toronto had a four point lead but Milwaukee was able to tie it again with 14.5 seconds left and Kawhi missed the shot to take it into double OT. Giannis fouled out and left it to the rest of the team but they couldn’t power through. The Bucks would go on to lose 112-118 and Game 4 is on Tuesday.
They had a chance to put it away in regulation. Toronto was up 96-94 with 38.7 seconds left, and the ball, when Fred VanVleet missed his eighth shot of the game. Siakam then missed two free throws, and Milwaukee tied the game with 2.2 seconds left when Khris Middleton put in his own rebound on a drive.
They had a chance to seal it in the first OT, too. But Kawhi missed a long three, and a pullup jumper at the buzzer. Toronto trailed 2-0 in the series. Game 3 of the Eastern Conference final was the season.
And by double overtime, they had so little left. Kyle Lowry had fouled out. Green was only in the game because Norm Powell, one-game hero, had fouled out, too. At least Green had hit his first shot of the game in OT. Similarly, VanVleet had hit his only shot down the stretch. Serge Ibaka wasn’t hitting; Gasol had five fouls. What was left?
They found out. Giannis was held to 12 points on 5-of-16 shooting and 20 rebounds; Kawhi guarded him plenty, and had 36 on 11-of-25 shooting, nine rebounds and five assists. Siakam had 25 and 11 rebounds, and Gasol finished with 16 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists. After his talk of changes, coach Nick Nurse went with the starting unit that was created in the final quarter of the season, and carried them here. Gasol had been 3-for-20 in the series and played one of the worst games of his career in Game 2, to the point where his finely calibrated game sense went haywire.
But at least he only played 19 minutes, and got some rest, and he was back in the starting lineup. Green was the other question mark — he had made six shots in his previous four games — and despite some early defensive digging, he couldn’t make a shot. So he gave way, after some early misses, to Powell, who would score 19.
Otherwise, it was about the Raptors being the Raptors, and not being afraid to be the Raptors. Gasol hit his first two threes, and hit some cutters for layups, and his mere existence as a threat opened up the lane some for Siakam. Siakam was therefore back to being what he has blossomed into this season: a spinning, driving, leaping electric eel, rather than a stationary three-point shooter, marooned in the corner.
“I think, again, we’ve got to be more aggressive,” Nurse before the game. “I think we’ve limited our chances at (Giannis). Obviously, he’s a great defender, shot blocker and he’s long, but it’s not like he’s impossible to score on. Even with (Brook) Lopez, we’ve got to take it in there with a little more physicality, courage — did I say physicality yet?
It doesn’t matter that Danny Green and Fred VanVleet were borderline unplayable for the first 41 minutes and 48 seconds of the game. Their two combined buckets (on 20 total shots) both came from long range, at crucial moments, in the minutes after Lowry was sidelined. Their defense was essential, too. Milwaukee doesn’t finish 38-of-102 from the floor without those two popping in for random flashes of rim protection in crunch time.
Who gives a damn that Pascal Siakam missed two free throws in the closing minutes of regulation that would have all but sealed the win for Toronto. Everything else he did — the 25 points on 9-of-18 shooting, the 11 rebounds, the two corner threes and the game-saving weak-side block on whoever the hell it was (the victim of his swat doesn’t matter either) — all more than made up for the instance in which his nerves failed him. The doomed three-pointer at the end of regulation that he hoisted was hardly a failure of his own creation.
It doesn’t matter that Marc Gasol was 3-of-20 over the first two games of the series. At long last, Game 3 saw Gasol take the shots everyone from fans to analysts to Nick Nurse himself was screaming for him to let fly. He canned four of his tries from deep, and finished the night with a positively Gasolian 16-12-7 final line in a grueling 45 minutes. That he cleanly negotiated the last 15:11 of the game while sitting on five fouls was as essential as it was miraculous.
It doesn’t matter that Kawhi Leonard tripped over the foot of ref Ed Malloy early on and looked a little shaken for the remainder of the first quarter, nor does it matter that he limply missed a potential game-winner at the end of the first overtime. He’s got a famous buzzer beater already, and the work he put in over the final five minutes of the game are the reason it’s easy to shoo away the bad vibes right now. His thunderous lefty dunk with 3-ish minutes to play, followed by the vintage Leonard steal and dunk he strung together with 1:45 left to put the Raps up 112-109, were the stand-out plays. He also had a hand in Giannis Antetokounmpo’s 12-point, 5-of-16 night, too, after taking the role of primary defender against the most indefensible guy in the league.
“I think his defense was probably the biggest key of the game,” said Nurse after the game. “Not only did he just play good, but he made some huge plays with some steals and rip-aways and breakaways. Offense was hard to come by there for both teams for a while, and any time toy can get a steal and a breakout, it’s a huge momentum play.”
Oh, and it really doesn’t matter that Leonard may or may not have double-dribbled on his lefty thunder slam either. Call it retribution for the three-shot foul Nikola Mirotic drew earlier in the evening by body checking an airborne Norman Powell.
After scoring eight of his game-high 36 points in the second overtime, Kawhi Leonard spoke about the confidence his team has in him to take over the game and credited his guys for the excellent effort they showed against Giannis Antetokounmpo defensively.
Raptors forward Serge Ibaka, the defensive anchor for that 2012 Thunder run, played only 14 minutes Sunday night — Nurse opting to dance with the starters that brought him — but inside the locker room, the 10-year veteran gave hope to the nearly hopeless.
After Game 2, he walked into the road locker room at the Fiserv Forum and found a team that seemed all too aware of the odds. “The energy was really down. Everybody was down,” he recalls. “We were supposed to win the first game and we didn’t win the first game. Then the second game, at some point they were up by like 26, 28.”
“It feels like sh–,” Ibaka said, recalling both times he faced a 2-0 deficit. But who better to find comfort in that familiar hopelessness than the walking 7 percent, one of the few men who knew — really, really knew — that the ink hadn’t dried on their stories. “I felt like we needed to hear something to give us belief, to know it’s not late, it’s not over yet,” he said.
Ibaka narrowly beats buzzer for 3-pointer
Serge Ibaka hit a three-pointer with under one second left in the first half of Game 3.
So he told his teammates a long story, one that played out over four straight victories that led the Thunder to the Finals. Mostly, he just told them how it feels to be down and out, like you’re up against an impossible foe who won’t stop hitting impossible shots and kicking your ass all over the court.
“Me and Danny [Green] were playing on the Spurs, so we really didn’t like that,” Leonard joked after the game. The point, in a weird twisted way, is all three know it can be done. They have seen it. When the odds seem insurmountable, knowing they aren’t is half the battle. Maybe it’s easier to do the impossible twice. Maybe the first crack is what arms you with the resilience, the inner fortitude — the hope, really — to do it again.
“When something like that happens, it’s you against the world,” Ibaka said. “All you have to do is stick together and give everything. The guys did it tonight.”
In overtime, Danny Green came off a screen and drilled a corner 3-pointer, excising the tension from the Scotiabank Arena. They were his only points of the night. Leonard somehow won a jump ball against Giannis. Gasol, sucking wind with nine minutes left in regulation, played another 19 in foul trouble, scoring five points in the final five minutes.
Overall, the Raptors did a fine job on the Bucks for the evening, holding them to 37.3-per cent shooting from the field and 31.8 per cent from three-point range while doing an excellent job shutting down Milwaukee’s dangerous transition attack, limiting the Bucks to just six fast-break points in the second half and overtime periods.
The stellar work Toronto did to stymie the Bucks can all be traced back to the job the Raptors did on Antetokounmpo, and more specifically the job Kawhi Leonard did on him.
The biggest adjustment Nurse made from the previous two games of this Eastern Conference Finals and Game 3 was sticking his best player on Milwaukee’s best player as the primary defender, and it paid great dividends.
Antetokounmpo only scored 12 points on 5-for-16 shooting while turning the ball over eight times. He was visibly frustrated all evening long, causing him to pick up fouls he normally wouldn’t and make silly mistakes a player of his calibre simply shouldn’t.
In other words, Siakam doesn’t force Antetokounmpo to pick up that sixth foul without the job Leonard did to first take him out of his offensive rhythm.
“His defence was probably the biggest key of the game,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “Not only did he just play good, but he made some huge plays with some steals and rip-aways and breakaways.”
And not only individually did Leonard help stop Antetokounmpo, but from a team perspective as well, he appeared to be the catalyst to help give other defenders like Siakam and Marc Gasol the confidence to be equally as effective against the Greek standout.
“[Leonard] was up and not giving [Antetokounmpo] quite as much runway to get flying off of,” said Nurse. “But so were the other guys that ended up on him in a switch or in different parts of the game. They were all a little bit more locked in. We took steps forward to get physical. The other night we were backing away from everything.”
Hesitantly pulling the trigger as he was in the opening two games, Gasol’s confidence, in the lead-up to Game 3, seemed gutted. He shot a combined 3-for-20 from the field in two losses in Milwaukee. His performance was so poor in Game 2 that he took personal responsibility for a blowout loss. He spoke of being sick to his stomach in the 48 hours that preceded Game 3.
But even with his shooting hand beyond cold and many questioning his worthiness of a starting spot, Gasol acknowledged the reality: He had to put aside his selfless instincts and heave away.
“It’s being selfish by being too unselfish sometimes,” Gasol told the TNT broadcast after Sunday’s game.
Gasol’s huge performance from the perimeter wasn’t the top story of Toronto’s epic 118-112 double-overtime victory. That’d be another heroic performance from a hobbled, dogged Kawhi Leonard, who scored 36 points in a career-high 52 minutes while taking on the job of primary defender to Milwaukee star Giannis Antetokounmpo, load management be damned. But Gasol’s 16 points contained some of the biggest buckets of a season-saving win. His 4-for-8 shooting from three-point range helped open up the interior for a Raptors team that, for the first time in the series, weren’t wholly dominated in the painted area. His team-high 12 rebounds helped shore up an area in which Toronto, too, had proved woefully inadequate in Games 1 and 2.
“He’s a pro. He’s a great player. I’m sure him taking responsibility (for the Game 2 loss), it’s never one guy’s (fault), but it just speaks to his character and he came out and had a great game,” said Mike Budenholzer, the Milwaukee coach. “He’s a big reason why they were able to win … Can we track him a little bit better? I’m sure we can. Hopefully limit some of his looks. But we’re doing a lot of things to limit guys, and at some point players are going to get shots and they’re going to make them or miss them.”
In other words: Milwaukee’s defensive strategy on Gasol probably won’t change much in Tuesday’s Game 4. He’ll be asked to do much the same again. But on Sunday, Gasol proved he can be an invaluably versatile big man for a team desperately in search of big performances from someone not named Leonard.
The Raptors got some key contributions throughout the night from players that were feeling the pressure to step up and Kawhi Leonard capped off Game 3 with a brilliant performance which saw him take over in double-overtime. The NBA panel breaks down the resilient play from Toronto and the head-to-head battle between Kawhi and Giannis Antetokounmpo.
As good as he was offensively, dwarfing everyone in the game with 36 points, it was his defence on Antetokounmpo that stood out. The Greek Freak was limited to just 12 points in 45 minutes as Nurse switched Leonard on to Antetokounmpo, allowing Pascal Siakam to expend more of his energy on the offensive end.
“His defence was probably the biggest key to the game,” Nurse said afterwards. “Not only did he just play good, but he made some huge plays with steals and rip-aways and breakaways. Offence was hard to come by for either team for a while and any time you can get a steal and a breakout, it’s a huge momentum play.”
As is his custom, Leonard was not at all talkative post-game when it came to any particular discomfort he may or may not have been in.
“I’m good,” Leonard said post-game following a long soak in the cold tub. “I’m just going to keep fighting and keep playing.”
But even Leonard admitted the 52 minutes, something he had never experienced in a game before, took its toll.
“Definitely yeah,” he said. “Fifty-two minutes and it’s in the playoffs so you definitely feel it. When you play 30 minutes you feel it still. You’ve just got to not worry about it, get treatment and move on to the next one.”
Antetokounmpo did have a game-high 23 rebounds and seven assists, but limiting him to just a dozen points before he too fouled out early in the second overtime was a game-changer for the Raptors.
Despite the persistent foul trouble, and squandering leads of four points with about 70 seconds remaining in both the fourth quarter and the first overtime, the Raptors leaned on Leonard and a feisty defense to outlast the Milwaukee Bucks 118-112 in double overtime of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals.
The greater the stakes on a given possession, the less artful the play from both teams. With Lowry on the bench, the Raptors were without their game manager for the final 16 minutes of action. “It was f—ing terrible to watch,” Lowry said of having to watch the game unfold as a spectator.
Meanwhile, Bucks starting point guard Eric Bledsoe struggled during his minutes on the court, as did de facto point guard Giannis Antetokounmpo, who fouled out in the opening minutes of the second overtime. Khris Middleton, who suffered a series of miscues with the game in the balance, also had a forgettable night.
Ultimately, the Raptors won as they’ve typically won this spring — on the shoulders of Leonard. He finished with 36 points, including scoring Toronto’s final three field goals and eight of their last 10 points in double overtime.
“His resilience,” Marc Gasol said. “He didn’t allow his fatigue, his pain, whatever it was that was bothering him — he beat it.”
Pascal Siakam and Kawhi Leonard (2) became the first Raptors to ever play at least 50 minutes in a playoff game, and Kyle Lowry was one of three players on either team to foul out. Gregory Shamus/Getty Images
Leonard has been the one constant for a Toronto team whose individual performers have been variable for the better part of three weeks. The Raptors escaped the Philadelphia 76ers thanks to Leonard’s theatrics a week ago with a 4-3 series win, but the historic shot — the squat, the four bounces and all the rest of it — occurred during a cold-shooting snap that has confounded the Raptors for days.
The two losses in Milwaukee to begin the conference finals exacerbated a tension that’s familiar in a game in which probabilities rule — but not always justly. Coming into Game 3, the Raptors had compiled just a 52.1 effective field goal percentage on uncontested shots since the start of the Philadelphia series after ranking second in the NBA (a 68.1 percent eFG) in uncontested attempts during the regular season.
For the Raptors’ regulars and their coach, Nick Nurse, balancing faith in a team’s longstanding success against the cruelty of recent results is a difficult task in the postseason. How do you respond when a group of players who drained uncontested shots at a higher rate than all but one other NBA team loses that touch over three chilly weeks? Do you make wholesale changes in your rotation and offensive approach even if, as the NBA axiom goes, you’d take those same shots tomorrow night?
Winner: Kawhi Leonard With a Limp
No team could take advantage of Game of Thrones’ ubiquity this season quite like Toronto, the northernmost franchise in the NBA. (The puns—Kawhi Leonard as the King in the North—were practically copy-and-paste, or about the same level of effort the show writers put into the final seas—nevermind.) So it was fitting that Game 3, the series’ first in Toronto, overlapped with the Thrones finale Sunday. And it really overlapped, as you, my multifaceted, HBO- and TNT-subscribing friends, are well aware, crossing into two overtimes. No rush to just, you know, wrap it all up.
Leonard won Game 3. He out-defended Giannis (more on that later); out-shot Giannis, finishing with 36 points on 11-for-25 shooting from the field; and outlasted Giannis too. The latter fouled out within a minute of the second overtime, while Kawhi played until the end, logging a game-high and career-high 52 minutes in the 118-112 win despite an uncomfortable landing in the first quarter that caused him to hobble throughout the remainder of the game, which kept the Raptors in the series, with Milwaukee now leading 2-1.
There were moments when it seemed like Kawhi would have to be pulled from the game. His usual explosiveness was gone on most drives; once, his burst dropped off altogether chasing a Malcolm Brogdon breakaway in the third quarter. But limping Kawhi was better than the alternative, especially once Kyle Lowry fouled out with more than five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter. Even injured, Kawhi dropped eight points in the second overtime to finally seal the game, including this scoop:
Health has been a repeated concern with Kawhi all season. The Raptors regularly sat him on the second night of back-to-backs as a precaution. Now that the prevention stage has passed, head coach Nick Nurse will have to adjust for the unadjustable. Toronto has already proved it can’t hang on while Kawhi sits, and a game where its bench scores 27 points is hardly the norm (shout-out to Norman Powell and his 19 points, which was still trumped by Bucks reserves George Hill and Brogdon, who combined for 44.)
The topic of just how hurt Leonard was never went away after he landed off-kilter in the first quarter and came back down the court hopping on one leg. It appeared at that time his left leg was bothering him — only for him to, far later in the tilt, grab at his right leg after he ran downcourt and skied for a massive left-handed fast-break slam with 3 minutes, 13 seconds remaining in the second overtime.
After the game, though, the Raptors downplayed any issues. Toronto coach Nick Nurse said he thought Leonard was “OK,” and Leonard himself dismissed any reason to expect him to miss time in this series.
“I’m good,” he said. “I’m just going to keep fighting. I’m going to be playing.”
He did admit that it took a toll on him to play those career-high minutes and drag the Raptors to victory.
“Definitely,” Leonard said, when asked if it felt like he had logged that much time. “It’s 52 minutes, and it’s the playoffs, so you definitely feel it. When you play 30 minutes, you feel it still.
“Just got to not worry about it and get my treatment and move on to the next one.”
When Lowry fouled out midway through the fourth quarter, it was fair to wonder if there would be a relevant “next one” at all, given that a loss would have put Toronto in a 3-0 hole in the series.
The Raptors led for virtually all of regulation, and almost all of both overtimes, but did so while getting almost all of their points from five players: Leonard, Pascal Siakam (25), Marc Gasol (19), Norman Powell (19) and Lowry (11).
By the end of regulation, though, Lowry and Powell had both fouled out, leaving Nurse to scramble and play Fred VanVleet and Danny Green for the overtimes — during which each hit their first, and only, shots of the game, both from behind the 3-point line. (VanVleet was 1-for-11 from the field, and Green was 1-for-9.)
Lowry, meanwhile, spent at least half the time in his customary seat on the end of the bench, often doing anything but looking at the court as his teammates tried to keep their season alive without him.
“I wasn’t [watching],” Lowry told ESPN. “I was just trying to will the ball in and will their ball out. But when you believe in my teammates like I do, you’ve just got to support them and do everything you can possibly do.
“First of all, his defense was probably the biggest key of the game,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse told reporters. “Not only did he just play good, but he made some huge plays with some steals and ripaways and breakaways that were, you know, offense was hard to come by there for both teams for a while, and anytime you can get a steal and a breakout, it’s like, a huge momentum play.”
On top of the huge individual plays, Leonard was a critical part of stopping—or at least slowing down—Giannis Antetokounmpo. He was matched up with him directly on several possessions, and his Raptors teammates were consistently ready to form the kinds of walls that would make Stan Van Gundy proud every time Giannis ventured inside the three-point line.
Together, they made every attempt difficult. Several even hurt the MVP finalist.
With 7:14 left in the fourth quarter on Sunday, Marc Gasol fouled Antetokounmpo under the rim. Before he attempted his free throws, Giannis stood for a few seconds near halfcourt, hunched over with his hands on his knees.
The Raptors took something out of one of the game’s greatest players, holding him to 12 points on 5-of-16 shooting. A player who often seems invincible looked tired. And Toronto, despite needing two overtimes, took some momentum back in the process.
Jesse D. Garrabrant/Getty Images
With a chance to tie the series looming Tuesday, Leonard finally got a little help. If Gasol and Pascal Siakam can repeat what they gave on Sunday, and Kyle Lowry—who was plus-15 before he fouled out—can recapture the magic he had in Game 1, Toronto has a good chance to tie this series up at two games apiece before it heads back to Milwaukee.
After going a combined 3-of-20 in the first two games, Gasol told the NBA on TNT crew he’d felt sick over his performance for the last 48 hours. His 16 points, 12 boards, seven assists and five blocks on 5-of-10 shooting should be good medicine.
Siakam bounced back, as well. He went 10-of-29 in Milwaukee, but he had 25 points, 11 rebounds, three steals and a block while shooting 9-of-18 from the field Sunday night.
What has to be scary for the Raptors, though, is that it took all of this to squeak out a double-overtime victory at home. If Gasol or Siakam isn’t quite this good, or if Giannis breaks through on a couple more drives, the Bucks have a commanding 3-0 lead.
In a way, what’s happening right now with the Raptors is not unlike what happened in 2015 and 2016 with the Blue Jays. The explosion came out of nowhere. Suddenly, losing became winning, suddenly hope became realistic. The Jays left their best behind in Cleveland and Kansas City and who knows when they make any magic in the future.
But this is Kawhi Leonard’s town right now, his place, his team, his almost impossible to define the style of toughness and play. Never has anyone said so little, showed so little emotion, grabbed the public the way he has and taken them along for the ride. He hit that next to impossible shot to win Game 7 of the last round, the photo that went around the world. And Sunday night, in Game 3 against the very strong Milwaukee Bucks, with the series truly on the line, with Leonard limping in the first quarter and still slightly limping 52 playing minutes later – outscoring Giannis Antetokouunmpo, the near-certain MVP of the NBA, 36-12, playing defence against The Greek Freak most of the night, and in double overtime with Kyle Lowry haven’t fouled out, with Norman Powell, having the best night of his career, having fouled out, Leonard did everything.
And then he did even more than that.
He stole passes. He fought for rebounds. He listened to a crowd at the Scotiabank Arena chanting “MVP, MVP.” He made the free throws necessary, the pass to Pascal Siakam for the game-changing. His giant hands were everywhere they needed to be.
Giannis will win the MVP when it’s announced next month. On Sunday night, Kawhi was the MVP of Game 3. Of that, on this court, this night, this time, there was no doubt.
It was that kind of show. It was the kind of game, the kind of effort, you can’t forget. Danny Green has played with Leonard for all of Kawhi’s career. he has seen a great deal, won a championship together, just nothing like Sunday night.
“I haven’t seen him do anything like that before,” said Green. “He was hobbling at the beginning. You thought – how long can he do this? But it’s Kawhi. He’s a special player. He does so many different things and makes everybody around him better.”
The 52 minutes is the most Leonard has ever played in his career. He did so while not being completely healthy. He led the Raptors in points, baskets, rebounds, free throws, offensive rebounds in the 118-112 win over Milwaukee. Nowhere in this season of confusing load management and making sure Leonard was content and healthy, indicated he could handle 52 minutes.
Toronto led for almost 45 of the first 48 minutes, but their offence stalled almost completely when Lowry went out. When Pascal Siakam missed a pair of free throws with seven seconds left that would have given the Raptors a four-point lead, the prospect of an overtime without Lowry was particularly daunting. This is still a franchise with a lot more playoff scars than happy moments, and the Scotiabank Arena felt like a place in which most of the 19,923 people in attendance were watching through their fingers, their hands firmly over their eyes.
But Leonard was at his scary best when he needed to be, with a couple of dunks in the second overtime, one of them off a steal, and a huge offensive rebound late in that period that allowed the Raptors to put the game away. Whatever cliché you prefer, that he willed them to a win, that he refused to lose the game, that he would not be denied, all of that was true. (It also helped that Antetokounmpo spent that final frame on the bench, having fouled out early in the second overtime, giving Leonard and teammates a lot more space close to the rim.)
And though it has been said so often in this playoff run, this was the kind of game that Raptors management had in mind when they made the risky trade to bring Leonard here. He’s an offensive force capable of scoring from anywhere, and on this night, he spent a lot of time guarding Antetokounmpo on the defensive end, holding him to just 12 points on 5-of-16 shooting. That’s not just good, it’s close to miraculous, which was basically what the Raptors needed on this night. Milwaukee still has a 2-1 series lead, but it is at least a series, with Game 4 coming on Tuesday night in Toronto.
The early story of Game 3 was one of subterfuge. After hinting over the past couple of days that the Raptors might switch up the starting lineup they used in every one of the previous 14 playoff games, coach Nick Nurse seemed to confirm it in his pre-game talk with media, saying: “I think there will be some lineup changes. That’s for sure.”
He also said he wasn’t ready to share what those would be — coaches can keep starters. “So do we go big to try to match them to where we can look them in the eyeballs a little bit? Or do we go fast and quick so we can maybe get around them a little bit? That’s some of the decisions you think about.”
And then he went and started the same five guys anyway, proving that, if nothing else, he was able to give the Milwaukee coaching staff something to think about for a few minutes. Maybe Nurse kept the starters the same because he didn’t want to mess with the intricacies of the Raptors’ handshake-line introductions? That stuff does take some work to figure out.
Nurse’s faith in his usual starting lineup was at least partially rewarded right away, with Marc Gasol draining a couple of early three-point attempts, proving again that he really likes shooting on the Scotiabank Arena rims.
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