Here’s 10 takeaways from the Toronto Raptors’ 100-94 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 6 to advance into the NBA Finals.
(Seriously, it’s really happening.)
One - Mentality: The Raptors showed the resolve of champions. The Bucks were in the driver’s seat up 15 points with two minutes left, but the Raptors went on a 26-3 run capped off by a Kawhi Leonard post dunk over Giannis Antetokounmpo during the next seven minutes to regain control. Credit the Bucks for not quitting and pushing the Raptors until the very end, but similar to the conclusion of Game 5, it was the veteran team that made more plays and fewer mistakes in crunch time.
Two - Historic: This was an all-time performance by Leonard, who came up huge when the Raptors needed it most. Leonard spurred a 10-0 run to close the third with two jumpers, drawing a 3-point foul, and picking out Serge Ibaka for a dunk. Leonard then returned after a short rest to dunk on Antetokounmpo, record two blocks, and seal the deal by swooping in for two offensive rebounds in the final minute. His 17 rebounds speak to Leonard’s will to win, but his seven assists reflect his growth. Leonard is already the best two-way player in the game — when he also makes plays on top of that he truly has a claim as the best in the game.
Three - Vindication: Raptors president Masai Ujiri took the mic after being handed the Eastern Conference Finals trophy, and boldly declared of Leonard: “He’s the best player in the world, and he plays for the Raptors.” It might not be as catchy as “F— Brooklyn” or his speech during Media Day about how fans need to, “Believe in this city,” but it was both a mic drop moment and a long-term play. Ujiri took a lot of heat for dealing away a franchise favorite in DeMar DeRozan, but this playoff run by Leonard has more than vindicated the decision made by Ujiri and Bobby Webster. The Raptors went as far as they could with DeRozan, but they needed a truly elite talent to reach the pinnacle, and the front office dared to gamble on greatness. Now it’s paying off, and with the team now in the Finals, it’s looking increasingly likely that Leonard would stay.
Four - Validation: The “Playoff Kyle Lowry” narrative dies today. To perpetuate it after this is just sheer ignorance. Outside of 2015, Lowry was always much better than his reputation suggested, and he showed it in this series averaging 19 points, five rebounds, and five assists on 51 percent shooting and 47 percent from deep. Lowry always does the little things, but he also stepped up with his play creation tonight, as he hit two threes in the third to keep the Raptors close, while also hitting a driving layup over Khris Middleton and Brook Lopez in the fourth quarter. Lowry didn’t choke in the playoffs — he just never had a No. 1 option worth supporting before Leonard came along.
Five - Legacy: Nobody deserved this moment more than Lowry, who simply couldn’t stop grinning after the game. Lowry has been the heart and soul of this entire run, as it was his emergence from being a solid starter to becoming a star player in 2014 that changed this entire outlook of this franchise. Lowry poured his heart into maximizing an otherwise limited roster, and it was so satisfying to see him finally hold that trophy. None of the best years in franchise history would have been possible without Lowry, and he deserves to see this run through.
Six - Clutch: Fred VanVleet was a revelation yet again, as he chipped in with 14 points off the bench on just six shots including a layup and a three in the fourth quarter to give the Raptors the lead. There’s always an unlikely hero in every series — Norman Powell stepped up in 2017, for example — and VanVleet filled that role beautifully over the past four games. VanVleet’s defense is similar to Lowry in the sense that they’re both high IQ defenders who can swing the momentum of the game, and on top of that, VanVleet is never afraid to shoot in the biggest moments. Raptors fans cursed the likes of J.R. Smith for shooting 77 percent from deep in last year’s sweep to the Cavaliers — Bucks fans will be doing the same for VanVleet going forward.
Seven - Hustle: Admittedly, this was not a perfect game from Pascal Siakam, who made plenty of bad reads and was a beat late defensively in the first half. However, Siakam improved as the game went along, and made perhaps the biggest defensive play of the season when he popped around Brook Lopez to pick off a lob feed from Hill to Antetokoumpo with just over a minute left. Siakam then redeemed himself from Game 3, as he iced the series by splitting a pair of free throws to make it a four-point game. Siakam has been thoroughly tested throughout these playoffs, and he has looked shaky at times, but he always finds a way to contribute, and that speaks to his mental toughness. Loads of young players go missing in the playoffs, but Siakam never quits.
Eight - Credit: Nick Nurse has taken a lot of heat throughout the playoffs, but he’s quietly done a phenomenal job in every series. He solved the Orlando Magic after that initial stinker, made the right adjustments to go big and match Marc Gasol’s minutes with Joel Embiid against the Philadelphia 76ers, and he devised a defensive scheme with Leonard and Gasol covering Antetokounmpo to shut down the Bucks. Nurse also stuck by VanVleet and the rest of the bench throughout their darkest days, and he was promptly rewarded. Sure, the Raptors are extremely talented, but getting this team to the Finals is a tremendous accomplishment by a rookie coach.
Nine - Appreciation: Although the Bucks ultimately blew a 2-0 lead and lost four-straight, you still have to give them a lot of respect. Milwaukee is very much ahead of schedule, and they already have a dominant team in just year one under Mike Budenholzer. The Bucks play both ends of the floor and have a coherent identity, and Antetokounmpo will only continue to improve. However, this series did reveal one fatal flaw in that the Bucks lack a closer. Milwaukee can’t reliably generate efficient shots in the fourth quarter, and at a certain level, they can’t just expect to blow everyone off the floor.
Ten - Lookahead: The Raptors will open the NBA Finals on Thursday against the Golden State Warriors, and as I stated after Game 5, there is a window there. Kevin Durant will miss at least Game 1 and doesn’t appear close to 100 percent, while DeMarcus Cousins is only just returning to practice. Toronto will have home court, a deeper roster, and the best player in the series in Leonard. There’s no reason the dream has to end with just the East. There’s a shot to win it all.
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