Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors took the Milwaukee Bucks' wildly successful system offline for a fourth straight time Saturday, earning the first trip to the NBA Finals in franchise history behind a 100-94 win in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference Finals at Scotiabank Arena.
Now, having bested an opponent who dominated the league for a year, the Raptors are set to face one with a stranglehold on a half-decade. The Golden State Warriors await.
Earning the chance to dethrone the champs was difficult, even if Toronto closed its series against the Bucks in decisive fashion, serving four straight defeats to a Milwaukee team that hadn't lost three in a row at any point all year.
Exposure is a given in the playoffs, but it's a loaded word that cuts both ways. Much of the talk following these conference finals will focus on the Bucks' failure to adjust, on their stubborn adherence to a system that worked perfectly until the Raptors shut it down. Everyone will criticize the Bucks' lack of movement in the half court, their over-reliance on a battering-ram approach that, clearly, wasn't potent enough to knock down Toronto's wall.
Rest assured that head coach Mike Budenholzer, whose system-based approach also won him 60 games with the Hawks in 2014-15 before it unraveled amid similar failures to adjust in the 2014-15 playoffs, will catch heat for sitting Giannis Antetokounmpo six different times Saturday. The likely MVP was a plus-three in a game his team lost by six points; clearly, those breaks were devastating.
Milwaukee didn't fall unassisted, though. They were knocked over by a Raptors team that came together behind its star, employed smart strategies and stymied a Bucks offense like nobody else could all season. And when the Bucks couldn't score in the half court again and again, Leonard was always there to double the pain by producing buckets on the other end.
That's the more positive side of playoff exposure: The basketball world got to see the Raptors do something spectacular.
Leonard scored 12 of his 27 points in a decisive third period despite looking utterly gassed throughout the run. Fatigued players shouldn't be able to summon the hustle necessary to corral their own misses at the foul line, but Leonard did it anyway.
In all, Leonard scored eight points and handed out an assist in Toronto's 10-0 run to close the third.
From there, a familiar theme emerged as the Raps' supporting cast coalesced around Leonard, melding the two separate teams that existed during most of the regular season into one fearsome whole. In a perfect example of Toronto's unification of star and orbiting role players, it was Kyle Lowry's steal that led to the game's singular highlight.
Leonard's dunk punctuated a 26-3 Raptors run that swung the game and decided the series.
Leonard was clearly the central figure with his 27 points, 17 boards and seven assists, but Lowry's typical on-the-margins assistance and big-shot chutzpah mattered too. He finished with 17 points, while Pascal Siakam contributed 18 and Fred Van Vleet continued his scorching run in the series to the tune of 14 points on 4-of-5 shooting from deep.
For all the collective success, there's still a rift of sorts in Toronto. Call it a business versus pleasure divide.
Because while Leonard stoically trod off the floor after the buzzer, expressionless, with a fist raised briefly in triumph his only outward show of emotion, Lowry exploded like a human firecracker of exuberance.
Consider his (vastly overblown) playoff demons dispatched.
If anyone deserves to revel in Saturday's win, it's Toronto's holdover star—the one who fell time and again to LeBron James and saw his best friend, DeMar DeRozan, traded for Leonard over the summer.
The celebration will be short-lived. The Warriors, a wholly different challenge, loom.
Golden State found a groove in its own conference finals win without Kevin Durant (calf) on the floor, channeling an older, more aesthetically pleasing and harmonious style of play. Building a wall won't work against the Warriors. They'll zip around it, vault over it and tunnel under it. There's no point in constructing a barrier if the opponent never attacks from the same angle.
If you're not into the wall analogy, think of Toronto's upcoming challenge another way. Sure, the Raptors cracked the biggest, most imposing safe in the league by solving the Bucks' attack. Nobody else figured out how to do that, so it was obviously impressive.
But the Warriors are on another level. Their secrets are encrypted, protected by nine-factor authentication and controlled by an advanced AI. They are infinitely more complex. And that's to say nothing of the disparity in big-game experience between them and the Bucks.
Still, the Raptors have Leonard, and he helped them beat a Bucks team that was better than everyone all year and 10-1 in the playoffs until Game 3 of the conference finals. Toronto, by one measure, will be the best team Golden State has ever faced in the championship round.
Note, too, that if the emotionless can hold grudges, Leonard will be uniquely motivated to finish what he started in the 2017 conference finals against the Warriors. Before Zaza Pachulia stepped underneath him in the third quarter of Game 1, spraining Leonard's ankle and tossing that series into the abyss of "what if that hadn't happened?" conjecture, Leonard and his Spurs were up 21 points.
It's a crime that we have to wait five days to see the Raptors take on this new, yet from some angles, familiar challenge.
Leonard and the Raps bagged the Bucks on Saturday, but bigger game awaits them in the NBA Finals on Thursday.