Somewhere along the way to the podium at the end of the 2014 NBA Finals, the place where Leonard’s arrival couldn’t be ignored anymore, Popovich decided it was time to empower the team’s future.
“He wants more,” Popovich told reporters during the season. “He wants me and the coaches to push him. So I just talked to him about not being in that ‘defer’ sort of stage. The hell with Tony, the hell with Timmy, the hell with Manu, you play the game.
“You are the man.”
That was realized by the end of that season, when Leonard, then 22, became the youngest player to win a Finals MVP.
So when he sits at the podium in Milwaukee and says he’s not afraid of the moment, after delivering what could be the prelude to an Eastern Conference finals knockout with a Game 5 victory over the Bucks, what choice do you have but to believe him?
This guy is clearly the man.
“He wants the ball, and he wants to make the plays,” Toronto coach Nick Nurse said after Game 5. “And he seems to be making the right play for the most part. You’re almost shocked when he pulls up at 15 feet and it doesn’t go in. I mean, he vaults up there and he has a good release on it, you think, ‘Well, there’s two more [points],’ and it doesn’t go in, and you’re like, ‘Man, what happened?’
When Siakam missed the free throws, which led to a lot of extra basketball earlier in this series against Milwaukee, Siakam said “at that moment, you’re kind of mad at yourself. My teammates did a good job of just calming me down. Marc (Gasol), Norm (Powell), everyone, Danny (Green). Just talking to me and making sure that I stay in the game and I understand that I’ve got to stay in the moment and next-play mentality.”
A game later, Siakam was singing the same tune when the foul trouble issue reared its ugly head.
“I’m like, ‘There you go again.’ That’s literally what I say in my head: ‘There you go again,’” Siakam said about the fouls after sighing loudly.
Then he again said how much his teammates assist him in those moments because of their experience and demeanour.
“Yeah, definitely helping me because for me, if I get something like that I get mad, I get upset and I want to kill myself,” Siakam said. “But just having those guys like Kawhi (Leonard), Marc, Kyle (Lowry), Danny, continuing to just tell me to stay in it and just know that whenever I’m out there just be smarter and it’s going to work out.”
Green is used to this sort of team. In San Antonio he was surrounded by steady veterans.
“It helps a ton when you have guys with the experience, guys who have been there before,” he told the Toronto Sun.
No one should ever forget the yeoman effort Brendan Malone put in as the first-ever head coach or how Butch Carter managed two stud athletic assets in Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady.
It’s hard to appreciate where the Raptors have been and by extension how much further this edition must now travel.
In many ways, Saturday’s Game 6 represents Toronto’s Game 7.
If the Raptors are truly worthy to play for an NBA final, and do take the time to digest the idea of being on the NBA’s biggest stage against the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors, Saturday night must be their night.
As desperate as the Bucks will play, the Raptors must be even more desperate.
In Game 5, the predictable quick start for Milwaukee ensued as the home side jumped out to a 14-point lead, an advantage fuelled by the Bucks’ transition game aided by Toronto’s turnovers.
With a game on the line, the Bucks couldn’t control the boards and allowed second-chance opportunities.
When a basket was needed, Milwaukee couldn’t hold on to the basketball.
When they tried to extend the game, the Bucks didn’t get a whistle while trying to foul Kyle Lowry in the open court, leading to an uncontested dunk by Pascal Siakam.
Oh, they’re so rattled. A Milwaukee radio station banned Drake’s music from its airwaves. An executive at Antetokounmpo’s agency tweeted about how he’d “never seen anything as disrespectful as this before.” Mike Budenholzer, the Bucks head coach, a man who has, conservatively, a bajillion more pressing matters to be concerned about, was asked three — three! — separate questions about Drake’s sideline presence in Toronto during an off-day conference call between Games 4 and 5 of the series. And he actually bit on the third one.
“I don’t know of any person that’s attending the game that isn’t a participant in the game — a player or a coach — that has access to the court,” Budenholzer said. “I don’t know how much he’s on the court. It sounds like you guys are saying it’s more than I realize. There’s certainly no place for fans and, you know, whatever it is exactly that Drake is for the Toronto Raptors, you know, to be on the court. There’s boundaries and lines for a reason. And, like I said, the league is usually pretty good at being on top of stuff like that.”
Through 17 games this postseason, he is averaging 31.4 points and 8.4 rebounds while shooting just over 51 percent from the field. Leonard already hit a series-winning shot for the ages in Game 7 against Philadelphia, the one that bounced around the rim four times before dropping through, but that now seems like just a prelude to even bigger things.
The Bucks had no answer for Leonard in their latest setback, watching helplessly as he scored 35 points, dished out nine assists, snatched seven rebounds and forced a couple of steals — all while turning the ball over just a single time in Toronto’s 105-99 victory.
“He gets stronger as the fourth (quarter) wears on,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “He wants the ball, and he wants to make the plays, and he seems to be making the right play for the most part. You’re almost shocked when he pulls up at 15 feet and it doesn’t go in.”
More important, Leonard is making everyone around him better.
“He’s playing at both ends,” Nurse said. “It really gives the rest of the guys a lot of confidence when you’ve got a guy playing like that.”
Leonard arrived in Toronto looking to put some salve on his reputation after that ugly divorce in San Antonio.
In Slovakia, another Canadian sporting star this week is cheering for the Raptors.
Defenceman Damon Severson, who scored the tying goal for Canada with 0.4 seconds left in regulation in an eventual quarter-final win over Switzerland at the world hockey championship on Thursday, says discussion often shifts to basketball during down time.
“The time change is a little difficult, but the next morning, that’s kind of a topic of conversation,” said the native of Melville, Sask.
“We’re all Canadian. That’s Canada’s basketball team, we all support the Raptors. Kawhi Leonard has been pretty amazing and for them to go ahead 3-2 the other night in Milwaukee was pretty cool.”
When Milwaukee Bucks fans were having fun, back during Game 2 of this series, a section of the Fiserv Forum chanted “Fu-ture Clipp-er” while Kawhi Leonard was at the line. Now, putting aside that the second-last thing a fanbase of a non-glamour team should want is a star on another non-glamour team to decamp for Los Angeles, this was a pretty savage burn. On Thursday, after ESPN’s Brian Windhorst reported LeBron James had been recruiting free agents to-be, including Leonard, to the other even more glamourous Los Angeles team, the chant turned to to “Fu-ture La-ker.” Given the circumstances of the game, the chant seemed more desperate this time.
Leonard responded by delivering what was either his best or sixth-best performance of the playoffs — look, it’s hard to tell at this point, we’ll revisit it in June — and put the Raptors in a position they have never been in before: a win away from reaching the NBA Finals. This was not a Kawhi and the Leonardettes-type performance from the Raptors, as Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Pascal Siakam all made massive plays down the stretch, but it was Leonard who orchestrating everything. Taking away the three late-game points the Raptors scored off of Milwaukee intentional fouls to extend the game, Leonard scored or assisted on 24 of the team’s 30 points. (For the record, he had a Kobe assist on one free throw, a missed shot that led to a split pair for Marc Gasol, and the hockey assist on Pascal Siakam’s punctuation dunk, too.)
Seems the hotly contested NBA Eastern Conference final between the Toronto Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks is generating a bit of trash talk overseas heading into this weekend’s event.
“I wore my ‘We The North’ shirt to the track today and got in an argument with (decathletes) Lindon Victor and Rico Freimuth about (Raptors star) Kawhi (Leonard) going to L.A. next year,” Gar Leyshon, the coach of Canadian Olympic bronze medallist Damian Warner and a former high school basketball coach, wrote in a text message to The Canadian Press on Friday.
“We are playing close attention and a surprising number of athletes here are watching, too. My 80-year-old mother emails me updates (she is a huge Raps fan and calls all the players by their first names!) and I have made Damian into a Raptors fan this year.”
In sporting arenas around the world, Canadian athletes are talking proudly about the Raptors, who have a chance to advance to the NBA final for the first time in team history with a win in Game 6 on Saturday at Scotiabank Arena.
Star sprinter Andre De Grasse of Markham woke up in the morning at his hotel room in Taipei, Taiwan to watch the visiting Raptors win Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead.
“After Game 2 in Milwaukee, I was trying to get to the team bus and one of the dudes in the Milwaukee arena just screams at me. He’s like, ‘Where do you think you’re going?!’ And I’m like, ‘Uh, I’m trying to get to the team bus.’ He’s like, ‘What?! Where’s your pass?’ I was like, ‘I don’t have a pass. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t have a pass,'” said Lin.
“This happens in a lot of arenas, so I just kind of go with the flow.”
Lin has played just 26 minutes this postseason for the Raptors, who are one win away from advancing to their first Finals in franchise history.
At the beginning of this month, the Toronto Raptors faced a 2-1 deficit with a Game 4 on the road in Philadelphia. They were coming off a 21-point loss on the road. Pascal Siakam was doubtful with a calf injury. Their season was on the line. Kawhi Leonard stepped into the spotlight with 39 points, including a game-clinching three-pointer late in the fourth quarter.
About a week later, the Raptors were on their home floor for Game 7, facing overtime and once again ending their playoff run in disappointment. Their season was on the line. Leonard dribbled from one end of the floor to the other and launched the first Game 7 buzzer-beater in NBA history over the outstretched hands of Joel Embiid.
On Sunday, the Raptors faced a 2-0 deficit against the Milwaukee Bucks. Their point guard fouled out midway through the fourth quarter. Leonard played 52 minutes and scored 36 points in a double-overtime win, saving their season once more.
On Thursday, the Raptors shot 34 percent from the field through three quarters. Two of their starters were scoreless heading into the fourth. They trailed by three. Leonard took control of the entire final 12 minutes, scoring 15 of his 35 points in the final quarter, and recorded a career-high nine assists.
In a span of three weeks, Leonard has delivered four of the greatest moments in Raptors franchise history, saving their season each time. His postseason run was already the stuff of legends, and where it places on the all-time list is only continuing to rise with each performance.
The square was once again overflowing Thursday, with fans excited that the Raptors are one win away from making the NBA final for the first time in franchise history.
The cheering section started during the 2014 Raptors playoff run vs. the Brooklyn Nets, allowing fans without tickets to watch the team on the big screen TV outside the arena, during road or home games.
“Listen, we have the best player, we have the best fans in the whole NBA, in the whole world,” a pumped-up Drake told a scrum of reporters.
“Look around, look around you. Look at this, we created this. This didn’t exist before we were here. Look around at the square, I promise you right now. We did this, it doesn’t matter what anybody said. They can say it’s disrespectful and they can say it’s this and that. Everybody is within the rules, everybody is doing their thing. All we are is proud and passionate. We are a college sports team, the Toronto Raptors are a college sports team, I promise you. I love Toronto, I love this team and we are going to the NBA (final).”
“We’re not gonna fold,” Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo told reporters. “We’re the best team in the league.”
Not gonna fold, can’t possibly fold, our regular-season record says we’re better than this — for years this was the essence of the discussion of a typical Raptors post-season. So it had to be nice for the likes of Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, who’s lived through plenty of microscopic examinations of his big-moment worthiness, to see the role of embattled Eastern playoff team suddenly foisted on the Milwaukee Bucks in the wake of Toronto’s mammoth Game 5 win.
The current Bucks sounded a lot like the retro Raptors, arriving in the playoffs as a highly touted thing only to be violently pushed onto a cliff’s edge by a superior being. Giannis may be the favourite to be regular-season MVP, but if this series has told us anything it’s that he’s not even the best player in the East. Kawhi Leonard treated the regular season as an 82-game practice and at times he’s dominated the Bucks as though they’re stuck in a regular-season malaise. And now, with the Raptors on a three-game winning streak and Game 6 set for Toronto on Saturday night, it’s the Bucks scrambling for solutions.
“We’ve got to fix anything we’re doing wrong right now,” Antetokounmpo said. “We’re gonna go in, give it everything we got. We can’t fold. We’re gonna come back to Milwaukee being pissed.”
sara.ziegler (Sara Ziegler, assistant sports editor): The Toronto Raptors stole a road win Thursday night with a huge game from Kawhi Leonard and are now just one win away from taking the Eastern Conference finals against the Milwaukee Bucks.
If the Raptors can win either of the next two games, they’ll move on to face the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. And, surprise — the FiveThirtyEight model favors the Raptors! What do you guys think about that?
neil (Neil Paine, senior sportswriter): That seemed … interesting. 🤔
I suppose it’s largely about the Warriors’ many injuries? (Not that those seemed to matter much vs. Portland.)
JaredDubin (Jared Dubin, contributor): The Warriors did just sweep the Blazers without Kevin Durant, and without Andre Iguodala for Game 4.
sara.ziegler: But our model doesn’t think much of the Blazers, either.
chris.herring (Chris Herring, senior sportswriter): Our model is wrong.
All due respect to our model.
Maybe you were worried, maybe even afraid. Maybe, if you have been scarred by the Toronto Raptors, you were gripped by a feeling that past failures might somehow become future ones, and you wanted to vomit like a broken fire hydrant. There has been, over the years, a lot of failure in this town. You could be excused if the moments — all the moments, in a scrawling line — were a terrifying thing.
Except this year is different, and it must have felt different to experience. The Toronto Raptors have, for so many years, been an exercise in frustration and humiliation. It has been about learning to chuckle at the absurd. When they finally got consistently good they graduated to being laughed at, when the moment came. It was last year that LeBron James tortured Toronto in all the ways he could think of, and ESPN’s Dan Le Batard cackled, “He’s laughing at them. It looks like so much fun for everybody involved except the Raptors.” Those, to be clear, were the good times.
And then Masai Ujiri traded for Kawhi Leonard, and the path has led here. In Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final the Milwaukee Bucks pushed, shoved, tried to stomp. The Raptors refused. The Bucks tried again, and the Raptors again said no. This team’s defence is a ferocious, determined thing, staffed by a blend of intelligent, talented players. It is implacable.
Raptors 3-0 since this tweet 🤣
— Brett (@brettdesnayer) May 24, 2019
Today a reporter asked me if @Drake is "too much" during the @Raptors playoffs. Here's my answer: @Drake is Toronto's most enthusiastic ambassador. The fact that it aggravates people in Milwaukee actually makes me happy – it means I don't have to do it! #WeTheNorth #NBAPlayoffs pic.twitter.com/DGdfZUlB6y
— John Tory (@JohnTory) May 24, 2019
If the Raptors beat the Milwaukee Bucks at Scotiabank Arena (8:30 p.m., Sportsnet) they can advance to their first ever NBA final, and ticket prices are sky high with fans wanting to potentially witness history.
On the StubHub secondary ticket website, the lowest priced ticket as of 2 p.m. Friday was $467.21 including fees or about $627 Canadian for one in Section 323, row 15.
At the same time, only “verified resale tickets” were available on Ticketmaster, and the cheapest was one in Section 317, row 13 for $637.20 each (including fees).
Raptors tickets from the box office have popped up on Ticketmaster on the day of the game during the playoffs, although that’s never a guarantee. For a standing room ticket in the upper bowl, that would still be $224 for this round of the playoffs.
Prices on the secondary market also usually fall as game time approaches when ticket-holders feel pressure to sell their tickets. Whether that’s the case for this hot game remains to be seen.
StubHub Canada called Saturday’s game “certainly” the hottest ticket of the Raptors season. The secondary ticket website has seen an enormous increase in demand following the Raptors victory in Milwaukee in Game 5 — there was a 109 per cent increase in sales.
Twice already this series, they’ve fended off what would’ve been devastating losses at home. That double-overtime victory in which their best player limped to a 52-minute finish and his all-star sidekick watched the end after fouling out was an example of how fragile this whole ordeal can be. They survived a Game 4 they had to have against the Philadelphia 76ers in the second round and scrapped again to win a Game 7 under their most dire circumstances to date. That they’re still here, still kicking and standing one win from hosting the NBA Finals north of the border for the first time is a testament to having the MVP of this postseason on their side and their collective character and resilience.
“Last time we was here, down 0-2, it was tough for us,” Serge Ibaka said after the Raptors won 105-99 and took a 3-2 series lead against Milwaukee. “We didn’t give up. That’s one of the good things about this group of guys. We don’t give up. We keep fighting. That’s why we’re here right now.”
The Raptors haven’t spent enough time together to care this much, right? They could watch all the legitimate championship hope that followed the arrival of Kawhi Leonard disappear in the snap of a finger, should he decide to leave this summer. And that’s what has made this run so remarkable, because whatever is holding it all together — determination, toughness, commitment and/or professionalism — has repeatedly shown no evidence of coming apart.
The big adjustment the Raptors made after falling behind 0-2 was putting Kawhi Leonard on Giannis Antetokounmpo. Everything the Bucks do on offense is based around their superstar’s ability to score over one defender or find an open 3-point shooter when the defense sends help. Kawhi is one of the only players in the league with the quickness to stay in front of Giannis and the strength to push him out of the paint and prevent him from living at the rim. Giannis is shooting 11-for-31 from the field (35.5 percent) in the 131 possessions when Kawhi has been his primary defender. He’s not making many plays for his teammates (four assists and five turnovers) or getting to the foul line (three made free throws), either.
Toronto has controlled the tempo of the game and kept Giannis out of transition, where he’s unstoppable. Milwaukee uses its defense to power its offense by allowing Giannis to push the ball up the court himself on stops, collapse the defense, and find shooters running into open 3s. He hasn’t been getting those same chances over the past few games; Kawhi has been scoring so easily that the game is staying in the half court. It’s hard to run after a made basket. Kawhi had a legendary performance in Game 5, with 35 points on 11-for-25 shooting and nine assists against one turnover. Everything went through him on both sides of the ball. For the first time all season, the Bucks don’t have the best player on the floor.
The Bucks’ season, and the success of the five-out offense that obliterated the league, operate on a fundamental principle: Giannis, perhaps like no other superstar before him, could attack the rim at will — with or without a jumper — so long as he’s locked in. Part of the reason the Bucks’ second back-to-back loss of the season didn’t come until Game 4 was because of how well Antetokounmpo bounced back after losses. Was this a sign, then, that the budding superstar finally decided to stop playing with his food?
He tried, at least. But the Raptors have their own decider. Antetokounmpo is a relentless worker, but in Game 4 he was rewarded only with the indignities of effort. Within the first two minutes of the second half, Leonard dunked all over him. Then he stole an inbounds pass intended for Giannis. Antetokounmpo responded by missing a three and charging into Kyle Lowry. Leonard has been Antetokounmpo’s primary defender since Toronto dropped the first two games of the series, turning Giannis into a jump shooter and steadying the ship on offense, powering a low-turnover, high-efficiency attack that prevents the Greek Freak from imposing his chaos on the game and muzzles his ability to run the floor in transition. The series hasn’t been the same since.
Against the Raptors, Giannis is shooting 31.7 percent from three and 56.6 percent from the line. Flared nostrils and an open runway can’t solve that problem. It’s going to take an offseason or two in the gym, but right now, he only has one off-day until Game 6.
Bitove also praised the team’s fans, saying they are knowledgeable, dedicated and have helped lead to the team’s current success.
“You have the American (TV) networks saying Toronto’s a tough place to play, their crowds are crazy,” he said. “All those things that make us all smile.”
Even the prime minister expressed enthusiasm for the team’s playoff run, saying his household has been drawn into the action.
“We’re extremely excited about the Raptors,” Justin Trudeau said during an appearance Friday in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. “My son is a massive Raptors fan and we’re having him stay up later than we would like because he’s watching the games along with much of Canada.”
Recent ticket sale statistics suggest enthusiasm for the team is high.
Demand for tickets to the potential deciding game of the series has shot up since the Raptors beat the Bucks Thursday night, according to StubHub Canada’s general manager.
Paul Nowosad said the average ticket price for Game 6 has increased to $690, up from $482 Thursday afternoon. And overall demand for Raptors tickets on the website has been steadily increasing as the team has moves deeper into the playoffs, he said.
“With the NBA Finals well in reach, fans want to be there live to experience history,” he said in a statement. “Saturday night’s game will certainly be a fan experience unlike any other.”
The team’s playoff run has both short-term and long-term impacts on the city, according to Tourism Toronto.
The Raptors’ success draws visitors to the city for the games themselves and also gives Toronto a level of exposure in the United States that doesn’t happen often, said executive vice president Andrew Weir.
“Any time you have continent-wide pop culture attention on the city, that helps build more interest and awareness and demand for Toronto,” he said.
“Walking around, even in Halifax, you see Raptors clothing everywhere. People are fans, they wear the clothes,” she said.
“There’s a lot more support. If you go to a (Halifax) Hurricanes game, kids and people are wearing Raptors gear.”
Thursday night’s win against the Milwaukee Bucks saw the Raptors take the lead in the conference finals, bringing them a third win in Game Five and potentially one game away from the NBA finals. This brings them once again to Game 6, but with a series lead this time.
Prior to this series against the Bucks, the Raptors beat the Philadelphia 76ers with a Game 7 win brought about by a miraculous buzzer-beater from Kawhi Leonard in double-overtime.
Brien actually attended that game. She described it as “probably the most incredible sports moment I will ever experience in my life.”
She credits that widely publicized game-winning shot with bringing basketball into the forefront of Canadian sports.
“The hockey analysts were talking about this Kawhi shot. Like, that to me shows that we’ve finally made an impact on Canadian sports, and not just Canadian basketball,” said Brien.
After jumping out to an early double-digit lead, the product of an abrupt lineup change that moved an ice-cold Nikola Mirotic to the bench in favor of sharp-shooting Malcolm Brogdon, the Bucks couldn’t keep their foot on the gas. They couldn’t stop Kawhi Leonard, who ripped off 35 points, including 15 in the fourth quarter. They couldn’t get Khris Middleton going — the All-Star forward finished with just six points on 2-of-9 shooting. In truth, they couldn’t execute in the fourth quarter, where they committed four of their 11 total turnovers versus Toronto’s zero giveaways.
Most importantly, Giannis Antetokounmpo couldn’t get going. Yes, he had 24 points on 50 percent shooting, but Milwaukee was outscored by 10 points in the 11.5 minutes he played in the fourth quarter. That’s not the kind of impact we’re used to seeing from the dominant force who some believe is this year’s Most Valuable Player.
Some of his struggles are a product of growing pains. This is the highest-pressure basketball Antetokounmpo has ever seen, since he had never even won a playoff series before this season. The Bucks went from the seventh-best record to the top East team in the span of one season.
It’s been a joy ride all year, but Antetokounmpo now has to get used to this. Many times in the fourth quarter, he forced shots where they did not exist instead of kicking the ball to an open teammate.
And Kawhi Leonard was simply the best player on the floor. Toronto coach Nick Nurse’s decision to have Leonard check Antetokounmpo at the start of Game 3 has been the coaching move of the series. With Leonard in front of him, Antetokounmpo has appeared tentative and unsure at times. Not every time, but enough to gum up Milwaukee’s 5-out spread offense.
If that was Leonard’s only contribution, it would have been valiant, but not nearly enough. The Raps needed Leonard to take over and he did, scoring 15 of his 35 points in the fourth quarter. All season long, the Raps have been derided for their give the ball to Leonard and get out of the way style, but it was necessary and it worked.
Every game has seemed like a referendum on where Leonard will play next season, but at this point, who cares? He was brought to Toronto to give the Raptors a chance at breaking through in the East, and he has them one game away from the Finals with a chance to clinch it on their home floor. Regardless of what happens, Masai Ujiri’s bold gamble has been well worth the price.
Now the series goes back to Toronto, and the Raptors hold all the cards. This is a unique position for the Raps, who admitted the games were too big for them the last they were this close to the Finals. That was back in 2016, when they played LeBron James’ Cavaliers even for the first four games and were wiped out in the next two.
They seem to play The Biggest Game in Franchise History every other day, but this time it truly will be with a chance to go to the Finals. Momentum is a precarious thing in this series, but they may never have a better chance than Game 6.
The setting reminds me of another Game 6, when LeBron’s Heat had their backs to the wall facing an elimination game in Boston in 2012. That night, LeBron went supernova and silenced the Garden.
What Ujiri will talk about is Africa, specifically the dramatic, widening impact of Africa in the NBA. As the NBA continues to expand its borders, the road from Africa to the United States has become a well-paved superhighway, thanks in large part to people such as Ujiri and Amadou Fall, the godfather of African basketball.
This has been the good news of the current NBA season and a point of pride for Ujiri. “I’m proud of where the game is going and the impact it’s having on the continent,” Ujiri said before Game 5 between Toronto and Milwaukee. “African players continue to grow and perform on the big stage. The NBA has taken huge steps to make progress on the continent.”
Beginning in 2003, when he hosted his first camp in Nigeria, Ujiri has played a pivotal role in inspiring young Africans in Nigeria and beyond to use basketball as a catapult to achieving great things. While players such as Serge Ibaka from the Republic of Congo, Pascal Siakam and Joel Embiid from Cameroon have become well-known stars, thousands of young African men and women you won’t see in big-time college programs or in the NBA have traveled the road Ujiri helped pave. They attend U.S. prep schools, community and four-year colleges. They work in jobs within and around the massive sports industry, not necessarily on the court. Ujiri preaches to aspiring young players the importance of using the game to create opportunities, and not letting the game use them.
“We have to give the youth a chance,” he said, “and that’s by building infrastructure, facilities and improving the coaching.”
As much as building the Raptors into a championship team is a goal for Ujiri, facilitating opportunity for young Africans has become his life’s mission and passion.
Fall, the NBA Africa vice president and managing director for Africa, said Ujiri is a living example of using the game. “You can be in the NBA in other ways, and I think Masai in the NBA is the biggest of all those,” Fall said from his office in Johannesburg. “He is running one of the best franchises in the league, and coming back every summer to give back, inspiring the next generation.”
The Canadian rapper is back in the news for his imprint on the 2019 Eastern Conference finals. First, he helped Gucci Mane live up to his rhymes from “Both” — “I got so many felonies I might can’t never go to Canada/ But Drake said he gon’ pull some strings so let me check my calendar” — as the 1017 Brick Squad impresario, wearing a Giannis Antetokounmpo jersey, took in Game 3 on the wood at Scotiabank Arena. Their 2016 collaboration, not so ironically, was certified three times platinum this week. Then he mocked, taunted and laughed at the Milwaukee Bucks superstar for missing free throws and waved goodbye. On Tuesday during Game 4, he gave Nurse that eye-opening in-game massage, which ignited a firestorm of debates over etiquette and conduct. Drake’s now public enemy No. 1 in the Cream City for simply being, well, Drake. The superfan who acts just like a superfan, only he’s one of the most recognizable people in the world.
The entire shtick is equal parts objectively annoying (to the other team and his critics) and artistically hilarious. It was no surprise to see the series take a turn for the petty Thursday night in Milwaukee. Mallory Edens, the daughter of Bucks’ owner Wes Edens, was seated courtside next to Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers wearing a Pusha T t-shirt. The nod to the Virginia MC was a flashback to a year ago when Drake found himself behind the eight ball for the first time in his career with a heated and highly personal beef with Pusha that involved Drake’s son, a rumored adidas deal gone awry and a picture of Drake in blackface. Eden’s wardrobe was a solid response — the franchise’s best rebuttal so far — that was diluted by the Bucks’ 105-99 defeat, which put them one loss away from elimination.
Folks, this is not a drill. The Toronto Raptors are one win away from the NBA Finals after a hard-fought, pretty wild finish in Game 5 against the Milwaukee Bucks. The Raptors relied on suffocating defense, some offensive rebounds and the Bucks’ lack of execution to finish the job with a 105-99 win in Wisconsin. As Magic Johnson told us, Kawhi Leonard was indeed a bad man. Despite clearly being hobbled by injury, he had 35 points, nine assists, seven rebounds, two steals, and a block. This was an MVP-level performance.
What about Giannis Antetokounmpo? He was certainly Milwaukee’s best performer, but got banged up and didn’t execute down the stretch. As Toronto forced the Bucks to play halfcourt offense in the last five minutes by closing off all run-outs, Milwaukee just couldn’t get any good action going. Khris Middleton had a rough night and the Bucks bench didn’t show up.
Fred VanVleet showed up and earned himself a podium game with 21 points off the bench, including an enormous three down the stretch. He’s had back-to-back lights out performance and is probably right behind Kawhi on the list of who deserves credit for turning this series around.
Meanwhile, Drake is out here holding media availability and trolling the daughter of the Bucks’ franchisee. Forget about Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam, and a resuscitated RAPTORS BENCH. Are we ready for Drake in the NBA Finals?!
Now Kawhi Leonard has shouldered his way into that conversation. He already had tossed up an improbable falling out of bounds game-winning shot, snared one-handed rebounds and wrapped Giannis Antetokounmpo, the Milwaukee Bucks’ transcendent star, in an iron-claw defensive embrace. Then on Thursday night, limping and no longer airborne, he unpacked his every move, scoring 35 points on an assortment of floaters and jumpers and put backs. He also dished nine assists and pulled down seven rebounds to give the Toronto Raptors a three-games-to-two lead in its Eastern Conference finals series.
As Leonard, 27, is two years and nine months younger than Durant, does he offer better value?
I put this how-many-angels-dance-on-the-head-of-a-pin question — Leonard or Durant — to basketball lifer Clarence Gaines. He was scouting swami for the Chicago Bulls during their glory days and was vice president of player personnel during Phil Jackson’s Knicks tenure. Before that sets you to muttering darkly, recall that Gaines insisted on drafting a Latvian unicorn by the name of Kristaps Porzingis.
Gaines was polite enough to offer only a hint of a chuckle at my question.
“So you’re bored?” he asked me. “If you can get either one of them you take them yesterday, today or tomorrow.”
O.K., but …
Gaines saw that I was not getting off the telephone and so offered more. To draw the comparative measure of those stars who loom as Himalayan peaks next to their contemporaries, you must dive into arcana. You begin with comparative statistics, which are impressive if perhaps not decisive.
Leonard’s playoff road this year is paved with gilded statistics. He has averaged 31 points and 8.4 rebounds a game during a run that has taken his team three rounds into the playoffs into a taut battle with the Milwaukee Bucks. He is shooting 52 percent from the field — and his performance only swelled as he dived into the crucible of the playoffs.
A counterpoint is in order: Durant pulled his calf muscle in the Warriors’ last series, and so he sat out the conference final. Gone is not forgotten. Before his injury, he was averaging 34 points — the highest playoff average of his career — and five assists per game, and shooting 41 percent from beyond the 3-point line. He sunk a dagger deep into his team’s toughest competitor so far, the Houston Rockets. And he’s a savvy defender.
In other words, he’s not bad.