NBA Finals Schedule:
Last summer, after five years of winning at least 48 games and looking impressive in the regular season only to stumble in the playoffs, Toronto’s team president Masai Ujiri went all in. He fired the NBA’s coach of the year in Dwane Casey to hire his assistant Nick Nurse, with the hope of installing a more creative offense.
Then they traded fan favorite and (at least to that point) the greatest Toronto Raptor in franchise history to get Kawhi Leonard, a guy coming off an injury that essentially sidelined him for a season. A guy who would be a free agent after one season. Leonard could bolt — like other stars had done north of the border — and leave the Raptors high and dry.
It was all a massive roll of the dice.
Toronto hit their number with that roll — the Raptors are headed to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history.
Toronto stormed from 15 points down in the third behind another monster game from Kawhi Leonard — 27 points, 17 rebounds, 7 assists — and held on to win Game 6 in front of a raucous home crowd, 100-94.
Toronto will host Game 1 of the NBA Finals Thursday night against the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors.
The Raptors may not be familiar with that stage, but Leonard knows both the Finals stage and that opponent (recall that the last time he faced them Zaza Pachulia slid under his foot on a jumper, spraining Leonard’s ankle and ending San Antonio’s playoff hopes that season). Thoughts about July 1 are banished for now in Toronto, the party is on.
Let that soak in for a minute, considering all that’s happened in the past quarter century on the hardwood in Canada.
I”It’s taken a long time to get here in my career, 13 years, seven years here,” said the heart and soul of the Raptors, Kyle Lowry, who had another stellar night with 17 points, eight assists and five rebounds on 6-for-10 shooting.
“I’ve run into one guy for a while (LeBron James). We were given the opportunity — he left — and we beat a really good team in Milwaukee. For me, I’m going to savour the moment, but I’m not satisfied. Our goal is to win the NBA championship. We’re just going to keep getting better and plugging away.”
The Raptors thrilled another sell-out crowd and the millions watching across the country by beating the Bucks 100-94 to become the first international club to reach the NBA Finals, which will begin Thursday north of the border against the Golden State Warriors.
With Scotiabank Arena loud, perhaps louder than ever before in the biggest game ever played in the building, the Raptors launched an improbable comeback in the second half, behind, who else – the unmistakably great Kawhi Leonard, who had 27 points, 17 rebounds and seven assists.
“Best player in the league,” Raptors president Masai Ujiri said of Leonard in the post-game television interview while the team was being presented with the Eastern Conference championship trophy.
After the confetti fell on the Raptors, fresh off their 100-94 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals Saturday night that sent Toronto to the NBA Finals for the first time in history, president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri was asked on TNT’s telecast how the trade for Kawhi Leonard turned out.
“He’s the best player in the league,” Ujiri said, as the sellout crowd of 20,478 inside Scotiabank Arena — all of which were still in their seats — roared in approval.
“And we’re happy he’s in Toronto.”
Just as he has all throughout these playoffs, Leonard was dominant again in Game 6, finishing with 27 points, 17 rebounds, seven assists, two steals and two blocks to lead the Raptors to a fourth straight victory over the Bucks, as Toronto — the team that has fallen short so many times over the past few years — finally had its day in the sun.
The Raptors got off to a shaky start reminiscent of Game 5, giving up a 17-2 Bucks run that straddled the first and second quarters to trail by 15 points early in the first half.
Toronto closed the third quarter with a 10-0 run capped by three Leonard free throws that sliced the Bucks’ advantage to 76-71 with one quarter left to play.
The Raptors continued to ride a massive wave of momentum — a 26-3 run punctuated by a massive Leonard dunk from a hand-off from Lowry with 6:46 to play prompting a roar from the crowd that rocked Scotiabank Arena. The fans didn’t sit down again until the game’s final buzzer blew.
The Bucks pulled to within a point with just over five minutes to play, but three-pointers by Marc Gasol and Leonard — Leonard’s bouncing up off the rim before falling, in similar fashion to his conference semifinal Game 7 buzzer-beater against Philadelphia — had Toronto up by five with 3:04 to play.
Leonard, who missed all but nine games last season with San Antonio because of a serious quadriceps injury, was breathing heavily, hands on knees, after missing a dunk that Siakam tipped in with 2:06 to play.
A pair of free throws from Lopez made it a three-point game with 29.6 seconds to play, then Siakam was fouled with seven seconds left. The Cameroon big man sank one. Then Leonard was fouled with 3.9 seconds left, and with the crowd chanting “M-V-P!” Toronto’s superstar sank both. Game over. Lowry could barely contain his emotions as the final seconds ticked down.
Can Kawhi Leonard Keep Carrying the Raptors?
Let’s go back to Game 1 of the 2017 West finals, when, inside Oracle Arena, the Spurs were up 22 in the third quarter and Kawhi stepped back to take a midrange jumper. Zaza Pachulia slid underneath Leonard as he contested the shot, and Leonard landed on Pachulia’s foot and re-injured his already-hurt left ankle. He didn’t play the rest of the series, the Warriors swept, and Kawhi’s Spurs tenure was more or less over. Now Leonard is a Raptor, at least for the time being, and has another chance to take down Golden State.
The mountain Kawhi and Toronto have to climb is steep—perhaps far steeper than two years ago, when the Spurs won 61 games. The Warriors have looked more vulnerable than ever at times this season, including in the first round, when it took six games to dispatch a scrappy Clippers team. But, suddenly, the Warriors look more like the dominant team that lost only one game that entire 2017 postseason. At the same time, it’s hard to doubt Kawhi given what he has done during these playoffs. Heading into Saturday’s Game 6 win, Leonard was averaging 31.4 points, 8.4 rebounds, 3.6 assists, and 1.5 steals while shooting 56.6 effective field goal percentage. Only three other players have ever put up 30-8-3 on 55 eFG% in 10 playoff games or more: LeBron, Kareem, and Shaq. However, only three of those nine previous instances led to a championship.
Leonard was able to rip through the Bucks’ top-ranked defense for four games of 30-plus points, so he will have his moments against Golden State, too. But with the Warriors able to throw multiple elite defenders at him, the Raptors’ success will likely come down to how Leonard gets his other teammates involved. On nights like Thursday’s Game 5, in which Fred VanVleet shoots 7-for-9 for 3, Toronto should be able to make the Warriors pay. Unfortunately, those nights are few and far between, and once the Raptors get to Norman Powell, their eighth man, they’re basically out of options (unless OG Anunoby can make a surprise return).
After getting down by 15 to the Milwaukee Bucks in the first half, the Raptors had managed to chip the lead back down to three. The last minute of the half was a minor disaster, allowing the Bucks to begin their pull-ahead in earnest for a second time. They smelled blood, and with 138 seconds left in the third quarter, the lead was back to 15.
There were no false ideas about what was hanging in the balance. The series was already somewhat miraculous for the Raptors, having erased a 2-0 series deficit with three consecutive wins, something the Bucks hadn’t suffered all year. The track record of teams coming back from down two games is difficult enough. Dropping a Game 6 at home would have made for even direr stakes with a Game 7 back in Milwaukee. Teams come back from down 15 with 14 minutes to play just seven percent of the time. And teams going on the road after dropping Game 6 at home are 5-16 all-time. Somehow, seven percent felt more attainable than 24 percent, but it had to be now.
Gotta make a t-shirt out of this. pic.twitter.com/6c1vfTbJgF
— Raptors Republic (@raptorsrepublic) May 26, 2019
Pour one out for DeMar DeRozan. I imagine he’s somewhere in Texas where Texans go to be very sad, like a saloon or in a car driving past the rival high school that beat them in the state championship 17 years ago or Jerry Jones’s house. But I have to also think DeRozan is happy for his good friend Kyle Lowry, the last remnant of the OG Raptors and the only one to get a shot at going to where no Raptor has gone before: the Finals.
Just reaching the Finals changes Lowry’s legacy with the franchise. For all his lows through the years, including all of those ghastly Game 1 performances, he is now part of the team that made history. Lowry was solid throughout this Bucks series. There was no classic playoff Lowry game (for the record, a classic playoff Lowry game is not a good thing), and he averaged 19.2 points and shot 46.9 percent from behind the arc while still doing typical under-the-radar Lowry things, like throwing his body before a driver and nudging his 6-foot-1 frame through rebounding scrums. Lowry won’t ever be the protagonist who wins it all for the Raptors—DeRozan wasn’t even enough to do that for Toronto—but he’s earned a shining spot in Raptors history.
1. Will Kawhi Leonard survive Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala?
It’s one thing to see a solid defender in your path, as Kawhi did with Giannis Antetekounmpo. But what happens when the Warriors can throw Green and then Iguodala and perhaps Klay Thompson and maybe Kevin Durant, all of whom bring different looks? This could prove problematic for Toronto and frustrating for Kawhi, especially if Danny Green, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka and company don’t rise up.
2. Can Kyle Lowry keep up with Stephen Curry defensively?
This will be quite the challenge for Lowry, to place handcuffs on a guard who averaged 35 points in five games (four vs. Blazers, one Rockets) without Kevin Durant and bring the same energy on the other end to ease the load from Kawhi Leonard. Lowry didn’t check a big-time scorer in any of the three rounds: DJ Augustin, JJ Redick, Eric Bledsoe.
3. Will any readjusting be necessary if and when Kevin Durant returns?
This is one of the more confounding debates raging outside the Warriors’ organization. There shouldn’t be any discomfort with Durant back in the fold unless you weigh the last four weeks over the previous two seasons. Besides, he’s surrounded by the most unselfish teammates he’ll likely ever have, starting with Curry.
It was before he pulled off a move born out either of disappointment, anger or petulance. The exit after the exit, as it were. But for now, the Milwaukee Bucks‘ Giannis Antetokounmpo leaned forward and stared off into the distance, cheek on hand as Khris Middleton answered a question.
We have seen this so, so many times in this general area of the Scotiabank Arena. Saw it many times as well when it was called the Air Canada Centre. But far too often it was somebody from the home team doing it. It was Kyle or DeMar most of the time because it was part of the gig when you were the twin faces of the Toronto Raptors. You slowly ascend the podium in the interview room and answer questions after a loss – in front of a room that gets fuller with each passing round, and increasingly with more of the names that help generate much of the discussion around your league. It’s the same after a win, but on those occasions it’s not so much of a burden.
But M.J. did this after wins and losses and, yes, even eliminations. So did Kobe and Shaq and LeBron still does it and even Kevin Durant does, too. Go through all of the names and they’ve done it. You take your turn. You answer the tap on the shoulder.
Masai Ujiri, who acquired Leonard in the off-season for much-loved DeMar DeRozan with a lofty goal of an NBA championship in mind, addressed the delirious, confetti-covered crowd after the game, saying “We came all this way to win in Toronto. And we will win in Toronto!”
The Raptors president called Leonard the league’s best player.
“I don’t care about being the best player, I want to be the best team,” Leonard said in response. “Just before the season when we made the trade Masai felt that way about me. He told me how he felt. It’s turning out well now. We’re in the Finals and we’re not done yet.”
The Raptors were making just their second Eastern Conference finals appearance in franchise history, and first since they stole two games off LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers before being ousted in six games in 2016.
Ujiri’s rebuild included firing coach Dwane Casey and promoting Nurse, then swapping Jonas Valanciunas for Gasol at February’s trade deadline.
If fans complained then, they aren’t now.
“We’ve got great fans,” Lowry said. “They support us through the good times and the bad times. Right now is a great time, and we’re glad that they’re our fans.”
The dunk – just one more signature play by Leonard in a post-season run that has too many to count on one, normal-sized hand – gave the Raptors an 87-79 lead and turned the volume at Scotiabank Arena up to nearly unprecedented levels. It capped a 26-3 run to start the fourth quarter and reversed what had been a 15-point lead for the Bucks late in the third.
It was only through a superhuman – so, standard – effort from Leonard that Toronto was able keep the Bucks within reach. He engineered a 10-0 run in the final two minutes of the third quarter with eight points and an assist, including a sequence where he drew a shooting foul on a triple in transition and then got fouled again when he retrieved the rebound on his own missed free throw, putting himself at the line again.
He only made three of the five shots, but who makes plays like that?
The Raptors have been learning first-hand: only players like Leonard, the best of the best.
Leonard’s surge set the table for a rabid-fire start to the fourth quarter as a Fred VanVleet layup and three, and a Serge Ibaka dunk in 90 seconds tied the score 78-78. A moment later they took their first lead since the opening moments of the first quarter when VanVleet connected on a pick-and-roll with Pascal Siakam. Not long after came Leonard’s slam.
But the celebrations were put on hold as the Bucks surged back to within one with an immediate 7-0 run that prompted a Raptors timeout, setting the stage for an excruciatingly tense finish, but, after 24 years, as if it could be any other way?
“We’re disappointed in ourselves,” Bucks center Brook Lopez said. “You don’t want to take anything away from them. They deserved it at the end of the day. They made huge plays, they won the games. I think we just left a lot of opportunities out there. We’ll keep getting better. There’s a lot of great stuff we did and a lot to learn from.”
The Bucks did bounce back, but they never fully recovered.
A 7-0 run out of a timeout got them back in the game, but they never were able to take a lead. The Raptors always had an answer, including a critical three-pointer by Marc Gasol with just over three minutes left that put the Raptors up four. Lopez, who had an 11-point fourth quarter and finished with 18 points, got the Bucks back within two before Leonard buried a corner three-pointer out of a timeout.
That triple was Leonard’s only three-pointer of the night in eight tries.
With just over a minute left, the Bucks had a chance to get back within one possession, but a pick-and-roll with Antetokounmpo and George Hill essentially sealed the loss. Antetokounmpo was wide open on the roll, but Hill was two seconds late seeing it, forcing a late pass in that was picked off.
The Bucks got within three with just under 30 seconds left, but opted not to foul immediately. Instead, the Raptors bled the clock before Pascal Siakam missed inside and got his own rebound.
“Gosh, it’s right on that edge,” Budenholzer said of the decision to play out that last possession. “We talked a lot about it as a coaching staff and went into the huddle with the players. I think it was 29.4 or 29.6, so you feel like there’s a five-and-a-half, six second differential.
— TSN (@TSN_Sports) May 26, 2019
Re-signing Middleton is the most critical item on Milwaukee’s list this summer. With Antetokounmpo under contract until 2021 (and eligible for an extension in 2020), the second-most important piece on the Bucks is at risk of leaving. Middleton is expected to turn down his $13 million player option for next season and enter unrestricted free agency, coming off a season where he averaged 18.3 points, 6.0 rebounds, 4.3 assists, and 37.8 percent shooting from behind the arc.
“We’re gonna do everything we can to keep him,” one Bucks official told Yahoo in December. The urgency for the organization here can’t be overstated: Re-signing Middleton is a bigger priority for the Bucks than it would be for most other teams because they likely won’t have the open cap space to land a comparable talent on the open market given all of the other rotation spots they need to fill this offseason. And for players on Middleton’s level, Milwaukee isn’t a destination. So, like there are hometown discounts, there are hometown gratuities. It’s likely that the Bucks will have to offer Middleton a maximum contract, especially with so many teams holding money to burn this summer.
A young and eager Giannis Antetokounmpo sat down to clack out a tweet.
“I’ll never leave the team and the city of Milwaukee till we build the team to a championship level …,” he wrote.
It was the summer of 2014, and Antetokounmpo was a gangly, doe-eyed 19-year-old who spent the year videotaping himself drinking smoothies for the first time and building muscle. He had finished seventh in Rookie of the Year voting.
Fast forward five years: Antetokounmpo has blossomed into a physically imposing player and MVP favorite who led his team to the best record in the NBA.
Kawhi’s play over the last four games was exactly why Masai Ujiri parted with longtime franchise favorite DeMar DeRozan last summer. Leonard is able to exert control over a game in a way reserved for the elitist of the elite. His imprint was all over Game 6, from timely buckets to his lockdown defense on Antetokounmpo, to his impressive passing after commanding double teams. Leonard carried a Herculean burden offensively, while forcing Giannis into easily his worst series of the playoffs on the other end of the floor. And he’s the biggest reason the Raptors will be headed to the Finals.
Over the last four games of the series, Toronto forced Milwaukee to play in mud, and the Bucks faltered when the games slowed to a snail’s pace. The Raptors thrived in the half court, and Saturday received timely contributions from the likes of Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet. After shooting 7-of-9 from three in Game 5, VanVleet followed up with a 4-of-5 performance from beyond the arc in Game 6. Toronto connected at a higher rate than Milwaukee from deep, while also outscoring the Bucks from midrange and in the paint. Milwaukee was simply not built to play these type of half-court contests, and its offense looked bogged down for the fourth straight game.
Last year, the NBA was not happy with Drake’s conduct in Toronto’s second-round series against Cleveland. It has a Fan Code Of Conduct to create a “safe, comfortable, and enjoyable sports & entertainment experience,” and the league asked the Raptors to tell Drake to tone it down after his verbal exchanges with the Cavaliers’ Kendrick Perkins.
But is Drake a fan or an official of the team? It seems he’s both. But can he have it both ways?
Trying to tone down Drake is a double-edged sword. He is also a big draw for the non-basketball crowd who will drive up television ratings for Game 6 on Saturday night because everyone wants to see what Drake will do for an encore.
Drake has a strong effect on the team from a marketing and sponsorship perspective, and his massive social media following will raise the Raptors profile around the world.
“Having Drake as an ambassador for the Raptors is one of the most valuable assets that any sports team has right now,” sports marketing expert Blake Lawrence said from New York.
It has been a tremendous grind to get where the Raptors are: a handful of flights, a game every other day for almost two weeks now, tension and emotion and the physical pounding of the toughest, roughest basketball they have been forced to play.
Bodies hurt and so do minds. The cumulative wear and tear of the NBA post-season is impossible to clearly explain unless you have to actually go through it.
Somehow this group has handled it — taken care of their arms and legs and joints, cleared their heads and met every challenge that’s been put in front of them.
The chatter about experience being a factor in the NBA Eastern Conference final that continued at Scotiabank Arena on Saturday night all too often focused solely on specific in-game situations, when it’s been so much more.
It’s been training minds to clear quickly. It’s been finding the right mix of on- and off-court work.
It’s about knowing yourself and what’s needed.
“These games are coming pretty rapid fire, and the veteran guys kind of know how to go out there and give you 40 (minutes). And though they have one day and a half to recoup themselves and re-energize themselves, et cetera, they’ve been through it before,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse was saying before Game 5 on Thursday night in Milwaukee. “I think our guys have shown they know how to do that as well.”
For the Toronto Raptors, this week has been all about turning grim games into winning outcomes.
And one Raptors superfan is savouring both his team’s sweet victory Saturday in the Eastern Conference final, and his own positive ending from a racist encounter with a Milwaukee Bucks fan.
Nav Bhatia was the target of a racist tweet sent Tuesday by a now-deleted account, @KJB30.
The tweet was put on blast by MP Raj Grewal, who called on Twitter to deal with the issue.
Before we get to the fireworks and adulation, the confetti and the trophy presentation, let’s recount the game. The Raptors took a 2-0 lead off a Lowry floater and then spent the rest of the next three quarters playing catch-up on the Bucks. Outside of some production from Kawhi and Lowry, Toronto looked like the version we saw in Game 2. The Bucks were closing on shooters fast, and the Raptors were hot potato-ing themselves right out of the game. It felt like a miracle to end the half down only seven points. To that point, Milwaukee was 9-of-18 on threes (to the Raps’ 5-of-12), and they were dominating the glass 25-13 — with a 7-0 advantage on the offensive glass. In short: the Raptors were on the ropes.
Heading into the series, this is what we expected the Bucks would do to the Raptors. They were — on paper — younger, faster and stronger, and had proven throughout the year that they could impose their will on any game in which they played. Me personally, setting aside Giannis Antetokounmpo, I was worried about the Bucks’ backcourt and figured Malcolm Brogdon, Eric Bledsoe (hah), and Khris Middleton would be enough to take Lowry and the rest of the Raptors’ guards out of it. But no team with Kawhi Leonard is ever really out. And as it has been all post-season, even down 15 points, Kawhi kept his cool. With the game on the line, he rallied the Raptors and the team came together.
Clearly, Leonard is hurt or physically limited in some way. He can’t take anyone off the dribble. But he continues to play lockdown defence, make impossible shots and generally roam around the half-court like Godzilla running amok.
As per the usual, Saturday’s game was a comeback from way down (15 points). Once again, it was Leonard who began it. Unusually, he was on the bench when the knife was being planted. During one remarkable stretch, the Raptors constructed an eight-minute, 26-3 run from the end of the third quarter into the middle of the fourth.
It is important to remember here that the Bucks were the best team by record in the NBA this year. They had the league’s number-one offence. They have league MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. They’d lost one game in the post-season. And they had not lost three in a row all year.
Toronto spotted that sort of team a two-game lead and then broke them in a modified, four-game sweep. By the end, the Bucks were in disarray. They weren’t beaten physically (though that also happened). They were mentally manhandled. Leonard did that, with strong back-up from Kyle Lowry.
In the final seconds of the game, Lowry appeared close to tears on the court. Leonard’s expression was his usual – no expression. He didn’t even come close to smiling. Not even a little smirk. Presumably, he’ll go back to his happy-go-lucky self once he retires.
This was for guys named Ronnie and the mascot named Raptor, for guys named Leo and Jonsey and the booming in-house voice known as Herbie.
For every stiff who came to town, every star, every wannabe, failed prospect, suspect, for every GM who either was shown the door or was exposed as being a fraud, there was only Ronnie and the Raptor, Leo and Jonsey and Herbie, the originals, Toronto’s day-oners who persevered and despite the many years of misery they always maintained their level of professionalism.
As the confetti flew from the rafters and as Ernie Johnson, the smooth-talking face of TNT basketball presented the Eastern Conference trophy to Wayne Embry, basketball’s conscience, Ronnie Tuerrene, the Raptor, Leo Rautins, Paul Jones and Herbie Kuhn did what they’ve done for all these many years.
They did their job and deep down each knew they played a small role in what played out Saturday night, easily the biggest moment in the history of Canadian basketball.
For Rautins and Jones, two guys who played their high school hoops in Toronto, St. Mike’s and Oakwood, respectively, their voices have educated fans from the moment the Raptors came to town in 1995.
Both were there at SkyDome when Toronto opened their run with a win over visiting New Jersey at SkyDome.
The mascot Raptor grew right in front of everyone’s eyes, a kid when he would execute cartwheels, implore fans, goad opponents and generally provide the kind of entertainment that became that evening’s best entertainment in times of utter on-court despair.