The Toronto Raptors advanced to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history with a 100-94 win over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals on Saturday at Scotiabank Arena.
Kawhi Leonard led Toronto with 27 points, 17 rebounds and seven assists. Pascal Siakam scored 18 points, and Kyle Lowry had 17 points and eight assists.
A Game 7 seemed inevitable when two Ersan Ilyasova free throws put Milwaukee up 15 with 2:18 left in the third quarter, but Leonard scored eight points and found Serge Ibaka for two to pull Toronto within five, down 76-71, before the fourth.
Toronto opened the final 12 minutes on a 9-2 run with Leonard on the bench to give itself an 80-78 edge, its first lead since 6-3 in the first quarter.
Leonard then returned and helped Toronto score seven of the game's next eight points, including a poster dunk over Giannis Antetokounmpo that capped a 26-3 run:
The Bucks scored the game's next seven points to cut the Raps' lead to 87-86 with 5:19 remaining, but they could not tie or take the lead from that point forward.
A Lowry layup, threes from Marc Gasol and Leonard and a Siakam putback helped give Toronto a 97-92 advantage with 2:06 left.
Brook Lopez then nailed two free throws, but the Raptors closed the game with three of their own, two of which came after Leonard rebounded a Siakam miss from the charity stripe and got fouled.
Antetokounmpo led the Bucks with 21 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks. Lopez had 18 points, nine rebounds and three blocks.
Kawhi's Presence Alone Means Raptors Can Upset Warriors
The Raptors got punched in the mouth in the first quarter, stood up in the second and took an uppercut in the third en route to trailing by 15 points with just over 14 minutes remaining.
Toronto looked deflated and lifeless, Leonard seemed far less than 100 percent and the Bucks killed the Raptors on the boards and from beyond the arc. A Toronto comeback was highly unlikely.
Leonard had other ideas.
He played at a different speed than anyone else down the stretch, to the point where this tweet from the Raptors' official account summed up what people may have thought when Leonard grabbed an offensive rebound off his own free-throw miss:
Leonard willed his team to a win on a night when starters Gasol and Danny Green combined to score six points and the Bucks started 12-of-23 from three-point range.
He also had 15 points, seven rebounds, two assists and two blocks in his final 10:31 of floor time. For context, Milwaukee as a team scored just 18 points in the final 15 minutes.
He was so good that it prompted Raptors president Masai Ujiri to proclaim the following postgame:
Raptors fans, of course, were thrilled and showered Leonard with MVP chants:
Leonard is the face of a resilient Raptors team that engineered two comebacks of 14 points or greater against the regular season's best team:
ESPN Stats & Info @ESPNStatsInfo
The Raptors closed out the series with a second straight double-digit comeback win. In Game 5, they overcame a 14-point deficit and on Saturday, they had to dig themselves out of a 15-point hole. Those are two of the three largest comeback wins in team playoff history. https://t.co/HJFGHAt9nT
Their last two nights have been impressive, to the point where it's conceivable Toronto could pull off an upset over the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors.
At the very least, Ben Golliver of the Washington Post reported that the Raps have the best regular-season point differential of any team Golden State has faced in the NBA Finals this decade:
And that was with Leonard sitting 22 games and Lowry out for 17.
Leonard can be to the Raptors what LeBron James was to the Cleveland Cavaliers in their seven-game upset victory over the 2015-16 Warriors in the NBA Finals. James willed the Cavs to the championship, averaging a team-leading 29.7 points, 11.3 rebounds, 8.9 assists, 2.6 steals and 2.3 blocks per game.
Leonard posted 29.8 points, 9.5 rebounds and 4.3 assists per contest against the Bucks, leading his team in the former two categories. The kicker is the Bucks are the best, most efficient defense in the league, per ESPN.com, so the Warriors may not provide as stiff of a challenge on that end (they are 10th).
Leonard has that James-like vibe, where he's clearly the best player on the court and at times invincible.
That's bad news for a Warriors team that will be sans 10-time All-Star Kevin Durant for the beginning of the series.
Durant, who is recovering from a right calf strain, is "unlikely to play at the beginning of the 2019 NBA Finals" per a team press release. Anthony Slater of The Athletic also posted this update on Durant's progress:
Tony Jones of The Athletic said it best:
Durant is the Warriors' best shot to slow Leonard given his length, and on the other end, he can help stem the tide of any Raptors run. Without him, the Warriors will have a much tougher time slowing Leonard if he continues his torrid pace.
The bottom line is the Raptors arguably have the NBA's best player right this second, and they also have home-court advantage against a team that's missing one of its top two players for at least the start of the series (and perhaps he'll be less than 100 percent when he returns).
Beating the favored Warriors will be tough, but with Leonard on the floor, Toronto has a good chance.
Toronto (58-24) will host the Golden State Warriors (57-25) for Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday at 9 p.m. ET. The Raps have home-court advantage by virtue of their better win-loss record.