One more win. That’s where we are, Raptors fans. Our team is coming home to Toronto with a 3-2 lead over the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, just one win away from the NBA Finals and a date with the defending NBA Champion Golden State Warriors.
That win will have to be earned; it’ll be the toughest thing this team, this franchise, has ever had to do.
We’ll get there. For now? Let’s enjoy what may have been the most impressive victory in Toronto Raptors history.
Blood in the Water
Did you see the way Kawhi Leonard circled the Bucks last night in the fourth quarter, like a shark smelling blood (or, perhaps, like a Raptor hunting its prey)? What a sight to see. There’ve been a lot of firsts from the Raptors this postseason — this whole situation they find themselves in right now, for one — but Leonard’s killer instinct is something this team has never had before.
With the Raptors entering the fourth trailing by three, here’s what Leonard did over the next four minutes:
- Stole the ball from Malcolm Brogdon
- Scored on a driving layup
- Hit turnaround fadeaway jumper
- Drew a charge on Giannis Antetokounmpo that was somehow called a block
- Assisted on a Fred VanVleet three that gave the Raptors the lead
- Hit back-to-back, step-back three pointers
- Hit two free throws to put the Raptors up six
Leonard didn’t do it all himself — Pascal Siakam and Marc Gasol both had huge blocks in that run, and Pascal capped off that scoring binge with a dunk — but that killer instinct came directly from Leonard.
It was amazing to see.
Can you Paint a Halfcourt Defense? Frame it?
I want to capture what the Raptors are doing in the halfcourt and hang in a museum, or possibly on my living room wall. The way they’re helping off of shooters, swarming to Giannis, rotating back to shooters, and helping down to cut off driving lanes... it’s insane. And the active hands! How many balls do Marc Gasol, Leonard and Danny Green get their hands on when the Bucks drive into the paint? Even if they don’t stop the Bucks from getting shots up or scoring, the Raptors are being extremely disruptive, and making every half court set difficult; the frustration amongst the Bucks is palpable, and every fast break opportunity is a relief for them just to be able to move freely.
It’s a thing of beauty, and we should be hiring artisans and painters and sculptors to capture it for future generations to see and admire.
They Changed. We Stuck. How’s That Feel?
I thought at some point we’d see Malcolm Brogdon appear in the Bucks’ starting lineup, but I have to say, I expected it to be for Eric Bledsoe, who — before last night, anyway — was possibly Milwaukee’s worst player in this series. Not that Nikola Mirotic (who Brogdon replaced) was that much better, but, large lineups have proven effective against Toronto (see: Philadelphia) so I wasn’t sure a small-ish backcourt was the right move.
Early on, it looked like Mike Budenholzer was right and I was wrong (real shocker there, I know) as the Bucks jumped out to the early lead. But in the end, it didn’t matter — the Raptors outplayed the Bucks in crunch time against Milwaukee’s starting unit.
Once again, this is a new feeling as a Raptors fan. Usually, it’s the Raptors who find themselves struggling to make the right adjustments as a series goes on, and as fans we’re stuck banging our heads against the wall as nothing our team does seems to effect the outcome. It’s particularly interesting this time around, as there have been times it’s looked like the Raptors should have changed — like perhaps starting Serge Ibaka and Norman Powell for Marc Gasol and Danny Green after games 1 and 2 — but Nick Nurse has had confidence in his players and rotations, and has made the right small tweaks — like getting Powell and Ibaka in earlier, like getting Leonard more rest when Giannis rests early — without making major overhauls.
Oh Danny Boy
The Raptors are winning this series 3-2, just won a Game 5 on the road, and have gotten next to nothing from their starting shooting guard on the offensive end. Imagine if Danny Green had actually hit a few shots last night? Or at any time in this series? He’s 6-for-28! That’s positively Bledsoe-esque.
Defensively, Green has been has usual excellent self; sure, he’s been overpowered by Giannis at times — who wouldn’t be — and has picked up a few cheap fouls, but overall, he’s been an integral cog in the Raptors swarming team defense.
But he’s been an invisible man on the other side of the ball, and for a guy with a ton of playoff reps and his shooter’s pedigree — this is a guy who shot 27-for-49 from downtown in the freakin’ NBA Finals in 2013, remember — the Raptors need more. In the second quarter last night, when the Raptors had a chance to take control of the game, Green missed two wide open threes during a Bucks 10-3 run that turned the tide back in Milwaukee’s favour. It didn’t cost them in the end, but those two makes would have been huge.
You can’t bench Green because A) the Raptors aren’t deep enough and B) he brings too much to the table on the defensive end. But I can’t help but feel that if he was shooting anywhere close to his regular season numbers, this series might be over already.
The Freddy Jr. Story is Nice, But it’s All in the Eye
OK, we all know Fred VanVleet just welcomed a baby boy into the world, which has coincided with a (much-needed!) turnaround in his play. It’s a nice story — real-life perspective lifts weight off player, breaks slump — but I have an alternative theory.
Remember when Fred got scratched in the eye in the double-OT Game 3, and needed stitches afterward? He’s been lights out since. There’s a trend here!
Think back to the Philly series, when Serge Ibaka got hit in the head, needed stitches, and then started playing like a man possessed. What about Kyle Lowry, and his busted-up thumb? He hurt it in Game 7 against Philly, and he’s played unbelievably since. Heck, let’s look back to the regular season, and VanVleet’s own thumb injury: He missed a month and came back and shot the lights out before his playoff slump.
Alex McKechnie and Scott McCullough have the magic touch, man. Maybe Danny Green just needs to suffer a minor injury, go and get some treatment from Alex and Scott, and come back a new man.
So here we are. Uncharted territory, not just in the situation itself — one win away from the Finals — but this feeling of confidence that the opportunity is real, that it’s right there for the taking, that we have the team and the superstar to make it happen.
It’s a good feeling! A little scary, to be sure. It feels like there a lot of ways this could go bad, from here. But the positive outcomes? They don’t actually get any more positive than a trip to the Finals and the chance to play for a title.
That’s the goal. And it is literally within reach.