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Total team effort? The Raptors had no choice in Game 3

Led by a superhuman performance from Kawhi Leonard, and minus two of their better players, the Raptors came together to fend off the Bucks in Game 3. As inspirational stories go, this one is up there.

NBA: Playoffs-Milwaukee Bucks at Toronto Raptors Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Despite the idea being bandied around prior to tip-off, the Raptors did not change their starting lineup for Game 3 against the Milwaukee Bucks. Yes, coach Nick Nurse said changes were coming, but he didn’t specify what those would be. It wasn’t until the game was underway that it became clear what the Raptors were trying to do (answer: not much). And by the time they were into their second overtime, it didn’t matter what plans Toronto had. Their 118-112 victory came instead through attrition, won by a hodge-podge lineup that just happened to work enough to keep Milwaukee at bay. And it was indeed just enough.

“I think just in general, we played with a much tougher mindset,” said Nurse after his modest shifting of the team’s minutes kept Toronto juiced throughout. “I thought we were kind of gritty and we didn’t really 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 and make plays.”

Toronto indeed did not have much of a choice. If the Sixers series taught us anything, it was that the Raptors are now an eight-man team at best — depending on your mood with Fred VanVleet (or even Danny Green). The Bucks meanwhile roll almost nine deep, and appear fearsome throughout. Toronto is not without moves to make though. In the second round, Toronto needed the size of Serge Ibaka, and now they need the speed and force of Norman Powell. It was Norm who once again came in to change a series against Milwaukee, pouring in 19 points off the bench.

“I just try to go out there every game no matter who the opponent is and try to make a positive impact to help the team win,” Powell said afterwards, dodging the implication of his career filled with playoff heroics (some of which came against the Bucks). “That’s all I can say about that. I just try to give myself for the team, whatever situation or role it is, and go out there and provide energy or a spark off the bench and do whatever it takes, the little plays to help the team win.”

Norm did his job right up until he fouled out with 69 (not nice) seconds left in regulation. Thanks to being shoved into a driving Eric Bledsoe by Brook Lopez, Powell was forced to sit out the rest of the evening. He unfortunately had company as Kyle Lowry had already fouled out with a full six minutes to go in the game. As per usual, Lowry’s box score production doesn’t exactly jump off the page — 11 points (with 3-of-6 shooting from deep), five rebounds, four rebounds — but his steadying hand had been necessary for the Raptors’ success to that point. And though it hurts to say this, the absence of both Norm and Lowry meant the Raptors had to rely on VanVleet and Green to close out the must-win game of the season. You would be forgiven for not thinking Toronto had much of a chance.

We can make whatever kind of hay we’d care to make about some of those foul calls, but the fact remains: the Bucks are an aggressive, skilled team that forces the refs to be ready with the whistle. Lowry and Norm having to contain and/or help the likes of Eric Bledsoe, or Malcolm Brogdon, or even the big man, Giannis Antetokounmpo, himself makes it difficult to stay clear of fouls for a full 48 minutes (and beyond). It’s what makes Kawhi Leonard’s mere two fouls on the night so impressive (more on him in a bit). And how we can marvel at Marc Gasol’s impressive bounce-back performance, the last 15 minutes of which was played with five fouls.

“I was trying not to lunge,” said Gasol of his defensive mindset while he worked towards 16 points, 12 rebounds, a team-leading seven assists, and five blocks in almost 45 minutes of action. “And at the same time be the player that the team needed defensively and communicate and be aggressive but without using my hands as much. Thankfully I was able to stay on the floor.”

That he was. The Raptors closed out the final ten minutes of the game — the two overtime periods — with a lineup of VanVleet, Green, Kawhi, Pascal Siakam, and Gasol. From that backcourt they got 0-for shooting until Fred hit a three with just over three minutes to go in regulation. He was 1-of-11 from the field, while doing his best on defense against the swarming Bucks. Meanwhile Green managed an 0-for line straight on into the first overtime before getting the frame’s first points with a three. He finished 1-of-9 for the night, and struggled to keep the Bucks in check as well. Toronto got a huge break though when Giannis fouled out too, opening the door for Kawhi’s absurd heroics to finish the game.

For most of regulation, after a breakaway lay-up saw him limping back up the court, Leonard was stymied by the Bucks. He managed 15 first half points thanks largely to 6-of-7 shooting at the free throw line, and his quiet two points in the third helped the Bucks stay close. Obviously there’s only so much Kawhi can do, and holding Giannis to 12 points on 5-of-16 shooting as the lead defender doesn’t leave a player with much gas left over. And yet, when overtime came — and the second OT — everyone in Toronto knew it would come down to Kawhi.

“[Kawhi]’s resilience, man. His resilience, his resilience,” said Gasol in summary of the entire 52-minute performance and what impressed him the most. “He didn’t allow his fatigue, his pain, whatever he had going on, whatever was bothering him, he didn’t allow that not to let him push through it. Whatever was bothering him, he did it.”

Leonard had help, he freely and openly admits that, but he also knew what it was going to take to put this deep and talented Bucks team away in Game 3. So after all of that intense two-way play, how does Kawhi summon all that energy? “I just want to win. That’s it. We’re here. Nobody wants to go home. We want to keep striving and reach that goal. That’s it, that’s what I pride myself on on both ends of the floor and this is what happens.”

And hoo boy, thank goodness for that.