Raptors Take 3-2 Series Lead, are Within One Win of the NBA Finals
When the Toronto Raptors were trailing by 10 points early on in the biggest game in franchise history, Kawhi Leonard told his teammates to embrace the moment. Have fun. Love it.
``This is why we're here,'' he reminded them.
Now the Toronto Raptors are in uncharted territory. One win from the NBA Finals.
Leonard, who was acquired in the off-season precisely for nights like this, showed no signs of the leg pain that dogged him in Game 4. He scored 35 points _ 15 in the fourth quarter _ and added a career-high nine assists and seven rebounds to lead the Toronto Raptors to a thrilling 105-99 victory over Milwaukee on Thursday.
``I'm not afraid of the moment. I enjoy it,'' said Leonard, who recorded his 11th 30-point performance in the post-season for the Raptors, who took a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven Eastern Conference finals with their historic win. Never before has Toronto won three games in a conference final. They can book a berth in the finals with a win in Saturday's Game 6.
How good was Leonard's game?
Lowry took a glance at the stat sheet in the post-game news conference and said: ``The game he played tonight, 35, 9 and 7 was a pretty good game. It's a pretty good game on the big stage and on the road. Superstar. Superstar.''
Three days after his girlfriend gave birth to their son Fred Jr., Fred VanVleet had seven three-pointers as part of a playoff career-high 21 points. Lowry, playing through what he called ``pretty bad'' pain with a sprained thumb, had 17 points, seven rebounds, and six assists. Pascal Siakam had 14 points and a game-high 13 rebounds.
Giannis Antetokounmpo had 24 points to lead Bucks, who with 60 wins (two more than Toronto) had the best record in the league in the regular season. The Bucks hadn't lost three straight games all season.
``This was a super hard win tonight, super hard,'' Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. ``And we have to play with a tremendous amount of effort.''
The Raptors stumbled out at the start, digging themselves an early 14-point hole with horrible shooting. But, thanks to their stifling defence, they clawed their way back to take their first lead late in the second quarter. The Bucks led 75-72 with one quarter to play.
VanVleet connected on his sixth three of the night, then Leonard drained two in a row and the Raptors took a four-point lead with 7:56 to play. A Siakam dunk capped a 10-0 Raptors run to give them an eight-point cushion. The Bucks rallied to cut it to four with 5:31 to play.
Marc Gasol connected on a three, his first points of the game, to put Toronto up by seven, but Antetokounmpo's three made it a two-point game with four minutes left. Brook Lopez and VanVleet traded threes, then Leonard drained three free throws to give the Raptors a four-point lead with a minute to play.
Gasol made one of two free throws with 34.7 left. The Raptors got the ball back on the next possession when a video review showed the ball bouncing off Milwaukee's Malcolm Brogdon and out of bounds.
The Raptors inbounded the ball to Leonard, who heaved the ball over a Milwaukee swarm to Lowry, who passed the ball to a wide-open Siakam. The forward sauntered in for a seemingly easy dunk with 16 seconds to play and it was game over.
``It's first to four. We've got to go to Toronto, get a game. I think the group will be ready,'' Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.
Leonard's health _ he missed all but nine games last season with San Antonio _ was worrisome after he'd been noticeably hobbling in Game 4, two nights after a double-overtime win. But Nurse had been confident in his star, saying he'd given him the option to skip the morning shootaround, but Leonard was keen to be there.
``It's a great competitive spirit,'' Nurse said. ``He couldn't wait for the playoffs to get here, and I think he's played a lot of minutes and he's banged up and he says 'everybody is banged up but I want to play and I'm going to play and I'm ready to play.'''
VanVleet's big game came after a whirlwind three days. His son was born Monday night in Rockford, Ill., a few hours after he'd raced to get there. He flew back to Toronto for Game 4, then was back in Rockford on Wednesday to visit the baby before arriving in Milwaukee on Thursday afternoon, in time for a quick nap before tip-off.
``It's been a frantic week,'' VanVleet said. ``But that's what makes all this stuff worth it.''
So that's the winning formula? Zero sleep?
``I guess so, zero sleep, have a lot of babies, and go out there and let loose,'' VanVleet said with a laugh.
This is only the second appearance in the conference final for the Raptors, who stole two wins off LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in an otherwise lopsided series before being ousted in six games in 2016.
The Raptors' horrible start Thursday was reminiscent of the Bucks' 125-103 Game 2 rout in Milwaukee. Toronto made just four of 12 three-point attempts, and when Antetokounmpo threw down an alley-oop dunk from Eric Bledsoe it put the Bucks up by 12 points before the game was four minutes old. A jumper from Bledsoe stretched Milwaukee's advantage to 14.
But the Raptors pulled to within six points on a VanVleet three. They trailed 32-22 heading into the second quarter.
The Raptors held Milwaukee to 1-for-12 shooting to start the second, and Lowry's three-pointer with 5:09 left in the quarter capped a 14-2 Raptors run and gave Toronto its first lead. Antetokounmpo missed on a dunk on the Bucks' next possession, then a pullup jumper from Leonard put Toronto up by four.
The Bucks took a 49-46 lead into the dressing room at halftime.
Milwaukee opened the third with a 14-4 run, but VanVleet _ with three threes in the quarter _ kept the game close and the Raptors trailed by just three with a quarter left to play.
``He oozes the confidence that spreads to the other guys,'' Nurse said of VanVleet's big night. ``Again, he just stepped into the shots that were there tonight, and he was probably due to get hot in these playoffs.''
Back in Toronto, thousands of fans packed Maple Leaf Square outside Scotiabank Arena to watch the game on the building's giant screen. Drake took the stage and had the crowd roaring.
The Canadian rapper, and the Raptors' ``global ambassador,'' has been a lightning rod after his antics in Game 4 _ he was on the court cheering and heckling and squeezed Nurse's shoulders. Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer was among the people who weren't impressed.
The Fiserv Forum crowd included rapper Gucci Mane, and Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers and offensive tackle David Bakhtiari who guzzled beer on the Jumbotron, Bakhtiari downing three to Rodgers' one.
A Game 7, if needed, would be back in Milwaukee.
The Golden State Warriors, who completed a sweep of Portland on Monday, await the winner.