The opening minutes of Game 5 between the Raptors and Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals went as we expected. Milwaukee roared out to a lead, the crowd was going wild, and the Raptors were shrinking from the moment. Turnovers, clanged shots, fouls against — the whole ordeal. Basketball is indeed a game of runs, but it felt like Toronto was merely staving off the inevitable. The Bucks hadn’t lost three games all year, and we were watching how exactly they had managed that feat.
Except approximately 45 minutes of game time later, when the final buzzer sounded on that same Game 5 in Milwaukee, it was the Raptors who were on top. Let me repeat and get specific: the Toronto Raptors won Game 5 against the Milwaukee Bucks, 105-99, and now sit exactly one win away from the NBA Finals.
I feel like I should say this again, for a third time: the Raptors are one win away from the NBA Finals. The series where teams play for the NBA Championship. The biggest, most important basketball trophy in the world.
As he’s done all year, it was Kawhi Leonard who carried the Raptors through good times and bad. When they were on the ropes, more often than not Toronto could count on Kawhi with the ball in his hands to get them a bucket. He may be picking his spots and pacing himself now, but Leonard still ended up with 35 points, seven rebounds, nine(!) assists, and two steals. With all that defensive pressure focused his way, Kawhi still managed an 11-for-25 shooting line, including going 5-of-8 from three and 8-of-9 from the free throw line. With the game in the balance — with Toronto’s very sanity on the line — it was Kawhi’s back-to-back threes late in the fourth quarter that put the Raptors up for good. (The Bucks would tie it later at 93-93, but never get back on top.) In the biggest possible spot, Kawhi delivered once again.
Fresh off welcoming his newly delivered baby into the world, Fred VanVleet was also on hand to shoot the Bucks into the sun on their home floor. The diminutive point guard, who has had (to be honest) an absolutely dogshit run in the playoffs, reminded us all why we were convinced last post-season of his difference making status. In 37(!) minutes off the bench, VanVleet had 21 points, going 7-of-9 from three and acting exactly like the release valve on offense we always prayed and hoped someone would be on the Raptors. Toronto didn’t get a ton from Marc Gasol tonight (just one made 3), and absolutely zero from Danny Green, but FVV’s step up was so large it didn’t matter.
To complement that, the Raptors got their usual strong support from the sure-footed Kyle Lowry. On the evening, the Raptors’ captain once again did all the little things on the way to 17 points, seven rebounds, and six assists. His young counterpart, Pascal Siakam, didn’t have the best offensive night, yet he finished with 14 points and 13 rebounds, plus a few game-saving blocks (three in total) to keep Toronto’s defense solid.
It feels easy to write these paragraphs now and to recount all of the heroics of the Raptors down the stretch. But let’s remember: it was extremely dark in those early minutes. Toronto fell behind 18-4, and Milwaukee was playing exactly the type of game they wanted to play — up-and-down, Giannis Antetokounmpo going to the bucket, players raining threes, long-armed defense. On top of that, Siakam and Kawhi had already picked up two early fouls, Gasol and Green were nowhere to be found, and trouble loomed on every trip down the floor for Toronto. It was 32-20 late in the first and it felt like the dam was going to break and wash the Raptors away.
Instead: an 18-2 run, a suddenly 38-34 lead, and renewed faith in the Raptors, in the city, in life itself. If there was ever a reason to believe this year’s Raptors are real, this would be it. In the biggest game of the season (bigger than Game 4, or 3, or the one before that, or before that, etc.), Toronto responded to Milwaukee’s onslaught and silenced the entire arena. The Bucks, naturally, came back swinging again. Giannis had his 24 points on the night, Malcolm Brogdon terrified his way to 18, Brook Lopez annoyed everyone into 16, and (thank god) Eric Bledsoe scored 20 and began to believe he himself was the important player on the night for Milwaukee. Good for him.
The mood shifted once again in the second, and again in the third. Each time the Bucks were able to re-assert themselves, grab control of the momentum, make a big play or hit a big shot, and put the Raptors back on their heels. A 14-2 run in the third stands out, as the Raptors suddenly turned back into the team we saw in Games 1 and 2 — ice cold, shook, rattled, every other negative adjective you can think of. If not for VanVleet’s unconscious shot-making and the steadiness of Leonard, I’m not sure where we’d be right now.
The final frame of Game 5 was all about Kawhi. Despite all the worry about his legs and whether he had any juice left, Leonard would not be denied in the fourth quarter. Again and again the court was cleared out and he’d go to work, and again and again he’d find some way to generate something for Toronto — free throws, an open three, a jumper, something, anything. Heading into the series, the Bucks were a mountain, one that felt impossible to scale; Kawhi didn’t attempt the climb tonight, he just set about tearing apart the foundation stone by stone. And it worked.
Now, a personal aside: I tweeted early in the game, when the Raptors were on the ropes, that it sucked to wait all day for Game 5 only to watch it all come undone so quickly. In that moment, I was fully ready to concede the whole contest and just mentally prepare for another climb back to a Game 7. I had another tweet draft ready to go saying as much but thought better of letting it loose. Still, why not feel this way? It’s happened before; the Raptors never make things easy. We know all of this already, and I’m positive many of you felt the same way in that moment.
Which, of course, is what makes this all feel so surreal. The Raptors were down 2-0 to a team that had not lost three games in a row all season. They were not favoured to win this series — and with good reason. The odds were already stacked against them. And after five minutes of this Game 5, with the entire season seemingly on the line, it felt like they were about to do the typical Raptors thing and give it all away. Right up until the moment they didn’t. In truth, I should have known better by now.
But here’s what else I know: the Raptors are heading to Toronto for Game 6, just one win away from the NBA Finals. Unbelievable.