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Kawhi Leonard was the Only Man for the Job

The city of Toronto rejoiced on Saturday night when the Toronto Raptors defeated the NBA’s No. 1 ranked Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, sending Toronto to its first NBA Finals in the 24-year history of the franchise. There are a number of reasons the Raptors are going to the finals with a legitimate chance of winning it all.

Kyle Lowry is one of them: the longest-serving Raptor had one of his most well-rounded playoff series’ of his career, flourishing as a 2nd/3rd option that fits his playstyle perfectly, averaging 19/5/5 on 50/46/84 splits. The Raptors relied on Lowry the entire series, especially in the moments Kawhi Leonard was off the floor, and Lowry bounced back from an up-and-down conference semifinal to help the Raptors when they needed him most. Lowry is the heart and soul of this team, the floor general, and one of the smartest players in basketball. Without him leading by example, the Raptors wouldn’t be here.

How about the bench? The Raptors should have had one of the better benches in the postseason, with Fred VanVleet, Serge Ibaka, and Norman Powell all household names with proven resumes, but they failed to show up for most of the playoffs. Head coach Nick Nurse could only trust six men for most of the Philadelphia 76ers series (the starters plus Ibaka). Even early in the Bucks series, it didn’t look like the Raptors’ bench was going to outplay that of the Bucks. But then VanVleet had a second child and the rest is history…

Ok, it’s not that simple, but starting in game 3 the three guys off the Raptors bench stepped up in place of Danny Green, Marc Gasol, and Pascal Siakam, who all struggled at various times throughout the series. The Raptors’ bench outscored the Bucks 193-191 despite the Bucks having what was considered the best and deepest bench in the league. VanVleet had 21 points and 14 points in games 5 and 6, respectively, providing much needed three-point shooting in place of Green. Powell remained a Bucks killer, going off in a crucial game 4 win for 18 points, five rebounds, and three assists. His ability to collapse the paint and then swing the ball out was crucial for the Raptors ball movement, which improved as the series went along. Ibaka provided much-needed energy and rebounding, including in game 4 when he had 13 rebounds in just 24 minutes. He gave Toronto crucial second-chance opportunities after offensive rebounds.

The Raptors defense was stellar throughout the series, stifling the Bucks in the half-court after making the adjustment to have Leonard guard Giannis Antetokounmpo starting in game 3. Antetokounmpo shot just 35.3 percent in the 160 possessions Leonard defended him, scoring just 30 points. The Bucks averaged just 101.8 points per game on 41.9 percent shooting in the final four matches (compared to 112.8 points per game on 45.1 percent shooting in the regular season). They also averaged 13.8 turnovers.

Nick Nurse deserves some credit, too. He coached a hell of a series, aggressively rotating lineups in order to find the right combinations. He never gave up on VanVleet — who was unplayable against the Philadelphia 76ers and early in the Bucks series — and was rewarded by VanVleet finding his stroke and ultimately helping the Raptors close out games. Nurse’s belief in his players stands out, but his smaller adjustments go largely unrecognized.

For one thing, Nurse played tons of small lineups including Lowry, VanVleet, and Powell throughout the series. That provided lots of shooting and floor spacing, sure, but it also bated Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer into going small himself, playing heavy guard lineups despite his guards struggling offensively. Does Bud play Eric Bledsoe and George Hill 30 and 32 minutes, respectively, in a win-or-go-home game 6 if not for Nurse’s small-ball lineups? Maybe not.

One of Nurse’s best qualities has been his ability to keep this team even-keeled throughout the season and playoffs. No matter what the score, they never seem to panic and, more importantly, always seem to get better as each game and series goes along. Part of that is due to having a roster full of high-IQ veterans, but you also need a coach who stays calm and patient when things aren’t going right, helping his guys believe they can win. When asked about Nurse’s contributions to the huddle in game 6 when the Raptors were down by as much as 15, Kawhi responded, saying:

“He was pretty composed… He told us we were just here last game. To keep fighting, keep striving one possession at a time. We all felt like we were still in the game, we had a little bit of momentum left. And we just talked amongst each other once again and just said, ‘let’s go out here and enjoy it.’”

To get better as the game goes along and also have fun doing it sounds very Golden State Warriors-esque. Nurse brought Steve Kerr’s composed mentality to a Raptors team that needed it, and now the two teams will play each other for a chance to win it all.

But at the end of the day, no matter how good Lowry was, how much the bench stepped it up, how impressive the defense has been, or how well Nurse coached the team, it takes a superstar to reach heights this historic. Lowry was asked about what made this Raptors team different after game 6 and all he managed to do was laugh and look to his right where, on the opposite side of the Eastern Conference Championship trophy, Kawhi Leonard sat.

After running into LeBron James year-after-year in pursuit of an NBA championship and being unable to get over the hump, Masai Ujiri and the Raptors went out and got themselves their own James. They know it takes a superstar to win an NBA championship: 16 of the last 20 titles were won by a team led by Kobe Bryant, Steph Curry, Tim Duncan, or James. Despite James and Leonard having drastically different playstyles, it’s their ability to affect the game in so many different areas that make them special. That mentality enables them to take a team over the hump, no matter how large the hump is. The Raptors got Leonard because he can do things few people on Earth can, taking over a game with plays like this:

In game 5, Leonard scored 15 points in the fourth quarter in a signature road performance that will go down in history. But game 6 proved just how far Leonard’s game has come. Despite scoring just 7 points in the fourth, Leonard took hold of this game in other ways, being the best player on both sides of the ball in a James-esque performance. He drove into the paint with less than four minutes remaining, where Bucks’ bodies swarmed him, before kicking the ball out to Gasol for a wide-open corner three. After the Bucks responded with a bucket of their own, Leonard knocked down his own three-pointer off a Lowry pass. Then, after Siakam missed his second free-throw, Leonard came up with an offensive rebound despite being held by Antetokounmpo. He was fouled and hit both free-throws. Leonard had seven points, one assist, three rebounds, and two blocks in the final seven minutes and 19 seconds of the game, limiting Antetokounmpo to just one field-goal in the final quarter He finished with 27-17-7 and was everywhere, simply not giving the Bucks a chance to come back in the game.

Everyone was ready to coronate Antetokounmpo as the new king of the East; the new LeBron James, if you will. But Leonard, one of the few active players not on the Warriors who actually defeated James in a playoff series (winning Finals MVP in 2014), took the crown for himself. He exposed every hole in Antetokounmpo’s game while covering up his own. He became the historically-good superstar the Raptors have longed for all these years and got them over the hump doing it in a way only Leonard could. 

No one is going to declare the Raptors favourites in the finals. I get that. The champs are the champs until they are not the champs and all that. Plus, Toronto will never believe one of their sports teams is actually capable of winning a championship until all is said and done. But know this: The Raptors just beat the best team in the league — a historically good team — and are becoming a fully-realized version of themselves right on time. The Warriors have a depleted bench and are without Kevin Durant (for the start of the series, at least). The Raptors have overcome much better competition to get here. The Raptors have Leonard, who is playing like the best player in the world right now. The Raptors have home court advantage. The Raptors have an opportunity to bring Toronto its first championship in franchise history and the city’s first major championship since 1993. It’s about time.

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