There were several important games for the Toronto Raptors in their playoff run towards a championship.
Game 3 against the Milwaukee Bucks in the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals is on a pedestal of its own.
With the Raptors down 0-2 to the Eastern Conference-leading Bucks, they were once again searching for answers.
It was similar to where the Raptors were in the second round, down 2-1 to the Philadelphia 76ers. But this felt different.
No team in NBA history had come back from 3-0 down to win a playoff series. Game 3 was a must-win for the Raptors.
It required two overtimes but the Raptors held on to defeat the Bucks 118-112. A game marking a turning point in the Raptors quest for an NBA championship.
“We played with a much tougher mindset,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “We were kind of gritty and we didn’t have much choice there. Those guys had to roll those minutes and they kept on playing and fighting and doing everything they could to keep us in the game.”
From the opening tip, the Raptors were a different team to the one that lost by 22 points in Game 2. They played with a fervent intensity on both ends of the floor, whether it was Pascal Siakam being aggressive in the paint for a layup or forcing two turnovers on Giannis Antetokounmpo.
One of the key adjustments Raptors head coach Nick Nurse made was putting Kawhi Leonard on Antetokounmpo. It provided a blueprint for success the rest of the series; Kawhi defended Giannis for 41 possessions, with the Bucks big man going 2-of-12 for four points. Not allowing Antetokounmpo space in transition and forcing him out of the paint allowed the Raptors to play with defensive aggressiveness.
“They changed their matchup,” Antetokounmpo said. “I tried not to think about it too much, but whenever I tried to make a play, I saw they were showing bodies, they were sending a second guy there.”
Game 3 was another one of Leonard’s marquee playoff performances. His 36 points on 11-of-25 shooting from the field and 2-of-4 from three carried the Raptors when guards Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell fouled out down the stretch.
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But more impressive was Leonard’s length of playing time. He logged 52 minutes, a 2019 playoff high for the Raptors superstar. This is why Nurse restricted Kawhi’s minutes earlier in the playoffs. So he could be fresh and prepared for a game that the Raptors needed to win.
“To be able to go out there and play 52 minutes and lead the team with his voice in the timeouts, telling us to stay calm, stay in the moment, not get anxious — it’s amazing to have a guy like that on the team,” Powell said.
Despite the Raptors’ improved play, the Bucks kept pushing. Down five with less than a minute to go in regulation, Milwaukee stormed back thanks to critical buckets from Malcolm Brogdon and Khris Middleton. The Bucks came back again in the first overtime, down three points late in the frame.
The Raptors, however, never flinched. Not only did they rely on Leonard but their supporting cast to raise their game offensively. From Siakam scoring 25 points to Marc Gasol putting up four threes or Powell responding with 17 points off the bench, the Raptors showed how effective they can be with collective scoring depth.
While games that sent the Raptors to the NBA Finals and won the championship carry more historical weight, Game 3 allowed this team to get back on track.
Like they had done all playoffs, the Raptors conquered adversity, once again proving their championship pedigree.