TORONTO — With about two minutes remaining in the third quarter of Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, the Toronto Raptors — trailing the Milwaukee Bucks by 15 points Saturday night — had become so well-versed at digging themselves out of holes that they couldn’t possibly ascribe any mysticism to the completion of a comeback.
They were crowned and clowned by Joel Embiid and the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 3 of the second round, accruing a 2-1 deficit before winning in the seventh game. They let Game 1 against the Bucks slip away and got blown out in Game 2. They started Game 4 in an 18-3 hole.
No grand exultations sparked the seven-minute run that led to a 100-94 victory that cemented the Raptors’ season and spelled Milwaukee’s demise. “[Raptors coach Nick Nurse] was pretty composed. He told us that we were just here last game and to keep fighting, keep striving, one possession at a time,” Kawhi Leonard, who had 27 points, 17 rebounds and seven assists, said after the game.
They knew the drill. They had the tools. From there, it was a matter of harnessing them. “Marc [Gasol] was telling Serge [Ibaka] what he saw and how he could affect the game,” said Norman Powell. “Me and Fred [VanVleet] were talking and Kyle [Lowry] was talking to us. Kawhi was talking to us.
“The one thing Kawhi really stressed to us was just to enjoy it. Don't get too out of character, just enjoy the moment and go out there and just lay it on the floor. It was an amazing feeling just to be able to battle and chip away at it. It's how you make history.” One rotation at a time.
When things were bad, they used to get worse. Now, when things are bad, Leonard comes to the rescue.
Desperate force and tactical grift — a jump-shooting foul here, an offensive rebound after a free throw there — sparked Leonard’s own 10-0 run that turned into a 26-3 flood that turned a 2-0 series deficit into a 4-2 victory and Toronto’s first NBA Finals berth. “I think your team’s temperament flows through your best players,” said Nurse. “[Leonard’s] as even-keeled maybe as I've ever seen. So that spreads pretty quickly around the locker room. And on top of that, he makes a lot of big plays.” Enough to turn the team that used to lose every time it was supposed to win into the team that wins every time it’s supposed to lose.
There was a time, after all, that the Raptors didn’t have “it” and Paul Pierce did. The Raptors were the team that always fell short, in the city where Chris Bosh thought he couldn’t watch NBA League Pass, where Hedo Turkoglu infamously said “ball” and Andrea Bargnani taped Primo Pasta ads, where Vince Carter missed the shot that could have changed everything and forced his way out three years later. It became LeBronto, the place where the deepest run in playoff history didn’t even register as an “adverse situation” in the mind of their opponent. It was the place where, after trading DeMar DeRozan for Leonard, president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri basically had to implore the city to regard itself with self-belief, not self-pity.
There was a time when Lowry was the pudgy point guard who was supposed to come off the bench and get traded to New York before falling into a 9-2 swing that sparked a six-year playoff run that culminated in this Finals berth. In time, his attitude (and his diet) shifted and evolved, and so did the team around him: Greivis Vasquez became Powell and OG Anunoby. Patrick Patterson and Amir Johnson walked. Jonas Valanciunas became Gasol. Lowry’s best friend, DeRozan, was traded for this shot at a championship. Through it all, Lowry kept hitting the deck, nicking elbows and spraining ankles, watching his efforts turn into indignities, his reputation constantly toggling back and forth between disappointing and resilient, as though one could ever be the latter without experiencing the former. The last time he was this close, back in 2016, when LeBron James and the Cavaliers bounced the Raptors out of the playoffs for the first time, he was distraught. “It was a waste of a year,” he recalled Saturday night. “It was a bad feeling. But that feeling is over.”
Now that he is the floor general of a team going to the NBA Finals, does that excise everything that came before? Well, not exactly. Asked what he would tell the version of himself who three years ago was “sick” and shell-shocked, he paused and answered, “Everything happens for a reason.” That might provide some solace to the Bucks: You usually have to lose before you win.
The Bucks — coming off a charmed season, losing back-to-back games just once before this series, never having come so close before only to have victory escape their clutches — could not know how it felt, the feeling in the pit of your stomach, when you didn’t fail after giving it your all but because you know you didn’t.
“You have to go through some things to get to where you want to go,” said Bucks swingman Khris Middleton. “So hopefully, we learn from this and move on from it.”
The Raptors did. They channeled it, prying victory from Milwaukee’s hands, with a desperation born from a gripping need to not lose more than a desire to win.
While Leonard sat on the bench to start the fourth quarter, the Raptors who are left — the ones who took the licks — carved at the Bucks’ lead: Lowry, VanVleet, Powell, Pascal Siakam and Ibaka. Ibaka winced, shook his head and looked up at the ceiling when he remembered how being swept by the Cavaliers last year felt. “Man,” he sighed. “That was a bad feeling. It’s hard. The worst part is when you lost like you did last year, you didn’t give your best. You didn’t play your best basketball. You feel like all the work we put in, all the time we put in the summer, you work so hard during the season, and to come back to a loss like this. … You have to be really mentally tough to stand up and come back like we did this year.”
After they got swept, everybody else saw the Raptors’ past mistakes as a marker of their limitations. Inside the closed doors of the OVO Athletic Centre — the Raptors’ practice facility — they saw them as potential. “I had confidence we will back because we didn’t play our best,” Ibaka said.
Whether he stays or goes at the end of this season, Leonard gave the Raptors who remained the ammo to use the past as a weapon, not a crutch — a lesson, not a scarlet letter.
After the game, he ambled away from the podium and slunk down in his chair and wearily eyed the media scrum circling Siakam. He looked exhausted, with one eye half-open. Within a few minutes, he limped out of the locker room. Lowry, 33, will likely have to get surgery on his left thumb after the season. Gasol and Danny Green are on the wrong side of thirty. VanVleet, who has been commuting back and forth from Rockford, Illinois, after the birth of his son before Game 4, will have four days to catch some Z’s before taking on the well-rested Warriors, one of the greatest teams in NBA history, in Game 1 of the NBA Finals on Thursday. The Raptors are, by every measurable account, supposed to lose.