None of it made sense. The Raptors were down 15 in Game 6 against the Bucks and it felt like they were playing backwards. For every bucket, there’d be a call going the wrong way, or a back-breaking offensive rebound, or a desperation shot that sent Toronto tumbling asunder. There was a moment there where it really did feel impossible for the Raptors to win. Credit to the Bucks. For almost three quarters, they were in control.
But Milwaukee did not, indeed they could not, win Game 6. At some point in the second half, the Raptors — namely Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry — refused to lose the game. Cue the comeback. Cue the final score: 100-94.
And cue the grand finale: the Toronto Raptors are going to the 2019 NBA Finals.
Before we get to the fireworks and adulation, the confetti and the trophy presentation, let’s recount the game. The Raptors took a 2-0 lead off a Lowry floater and then spent the rest of the next three quarters playing catch-up on the Bucks. Outside of some production from Kawhi and Lowry, Toronto looked like the version we saw in Game 2. The Bucks were closing on shooters fast, and the Raptors were hot potato-ing themselves right out of the game. It felt like a miracle to end the half down only seven points. To that point, Milwaukee was 9-of-18 on threes (to the Raps’ 5-of-12), and they were dominating the glass 25-13 — with a 7-0 advantage on the offensive glass. In short: the Raptors were on the ropes.
Heading into the series, this is what we expected the Bucks would do to the Raptors. They were — on paper — younger, faster and stronger, and had proven throughout the year that they could impose their will on any game in which they played. Me personally, setting aside Giannis Antetokounmpo, I was worried about the Bucks’ backcourt and figured Malcolm Brogdon, Eric Bledsoe (hah), and Khris Middleton would be enough to take Lowry and the rest of the Raptors’ guards out of it. But no team with Kawhi Leonard is ever really out. And as it has been all post-season, even down 15 points, Kawhi kept his cool. With the game on the line, he rallied the Raptors and the team came together.
In his 41 minutes, Leonard had 27 points on 9-of-22 shooting with 17 rebounds, seven assists, two steals, and two blocked shots. In the third quarter, with the Raptors reeling, it was Kawhi who led the charge to get the lead down to five, 76-71. He personally set up a 10-0 run in those final two minutes of the frame — eight points and an assist on a Serge Ibaka floater — and when the fourth quarter started, the Raptors just kept going. On the one hand, it didn’t make sense, but on the other: it totally made sense.
In the fourth, the rest of the Raptors got going. Fred VanVleet hit a lay-up, hit some threes (4-of-5 from deep), and finished with 14 points off the bench. Pascal Siakam chipped in with 18 points on 7-of-17 shooting and four rebounds. Marc Gasol was quiet from the floor but hit two huge 3s in the fourth to help keep the lead when the Bucks started their counter-push. And Norman Powell and Serge Ibaka, after some quiet first half minutes, came alive with nine points apiece and some clutch baskets — a pair of dunks for both, and a big time three from Norm. It was stunning to see them all start doing their part.
Leading the way behind Kawhi was Kyle Lowry. The longest serving Raptor, the man who has done more for Toronto than any other player in franchise history, was out there for 41 minutes, and finished Game 6 with 17 points, eight assists, and five rebounds — with a drawn charge, and some absurd hustle plays in there too. As the Raptors’ run kept growing in the fourth quarter — 17-2, 19-2, all the way up to 26-3 — there was Lowry stealing the ball, driving the length of the floor with Giannis looming, spinning back and tossing it to Kawhi for the monster dunk. In that moment, it felt like the Raptors could not lose. There was still six minutes to go, and the Raptors’ 8-point lead did indeed shrink right back to one in the blink of an eye. But Lowry refused to be defeated, so did Kawhi — and by extension, so did the rest of the Raptors.
“The way he plays, [Kawhi] has so much patience,” said Giannis not without a note of admiration. It was the story of the game once again. In years past, earlier in these playoffs, hell, earlier this series, it felt like the Raptors could and would fold when the going got tough. They’ve had some really tough post-seasons, three painful sweeps in five years. And every time things turned sour, we’d remember each one of them, remember the pain of all those years in the wilderness. But Kawhi never seemed rushed, always seemed to know exactly what the team needed from him in the moment. In this one, he never wavered.
As the final minute played out, and dragged on and on — a five-point lead shrinking to three with 30 seconds left, with a series of reviews, double-checks, and all kinds of questions — the feeling was pure agony. It was hard not to feel like the Raptors would never get there. Like we’d never get there. The delays were so dramatic, it was as if the basketball gods were just making sure everything was right before the Raptors won. Pascal Siakam hit one of two free throws to get the lead up to four and then it felt real. And just for good measure, Leonard grabbed the rebound on Siakam’s second miss, drawing his own foul, and two more free throws. Then it was just a matter of running out the clock.
None of that made any sense either. Very few people figured the Raptors could beat the Bucks. Less still after Toronto went down 0-2 in the series. The crowds still showed up though, the lines of people stretched around the block. Everyone could taste the NBA Finals. Through the fireworks’ sudden blasts, the bursts of confetti, the speeches from Masai Ujiri, the illustrious and touching presence of Wayne Embry (on hand to hand over the Eastern Conference Championship trophy), Kawhi and Kyle getting their chance at the mic, the chants of “MVP” and of “Lowry”, the continuous “Let’s Go Raptors” cheer, it was just such a big idea to embrace.
After 24 years of existence, after far more bad years than good, after all those up-and-downs, the Raptors are going to the 2019 NBA Finals. If nothing else, let’s do what Kawhi says and just enjoy the moment. We made it.