Trading DeMar DeRozan was worth this.
The Toronto Raptors are closer to the NBA Finals than they have ever been, with a chance to close out the Milwaukee Bucks at home in Saturday night’s Game 6, and it’s all thanks to Kawhi Leonard, the man they acquired for DeRozan this past July.
Leonard scored 15 of his 35 points in the fourth quarter to help the Raptors take their first lead of the second half with 8:30 left and storm to a 105-99 victory in the pivotal Game 5 of an Eastern Conference finals that Toronto now leads, 3-2.
“I'm not afraid of the moment,” Leonard told reporters afterwards. “I enjoy it.”
After taking a 2-0 series lead, the Bucks have lost three games in a row for the first time all season. If this one wasn’t tough enough to swallow, they also saw their superstar, Giannis Antetokounmpo, tweak his ankle in the final minutes. He sat out four possessions down the stretch of what was a one-possession game before returning for the final 26 seconds, but it was too little too late for Milwaukee.
Leonard smelled blood with Toronto trailing 75-72 entering the fourth quarter, and he went for the throat. He scored 12 of the Raptors’ first 15 points in the final frame, including back-to-back 3-pointers that gave them a four-point lead they never relinquished. It’s blasphemous to call any playoff performance Jordan-esque, but few others have ever been so methodical as Leonard going for Milwaukee’s jugular.
“When he's shooting the 3 like that, he's un-guard-able,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said from the podium. “There's no chance for anybody. And I think that kind of opened the floor up for him. ... He gave it to you in every which way.”
Leonard did not do this alone. VanVleet helped get him here. The Raptors reserve scored 21 points on 7-of-9 shooting from 3-point range off the bench. Prior to the birth of his son, Fred Jr., on Monday, VanVleet was a wildly disappointing 8-of-41 from distance in these playoffs. He is now 10-of-12 in the two games since.
VanVleet on turning around his postseason since his son, Fred Jr., was born: "I'm not giving him all the credit, but he's probably helped me out a little bit."
— Josh Lewenberg (@JLew1050) May 24, 2019
Two of VanVleet’s 3’s came at a crucial juncture of the third quarter, when the Bucks had pushed their lead back to double digits. His two triples in succession sliced Milwaukee’s lead to 63-59 with 6:23 remaining in the frame, and that was plenty of time for Leonard to clean up what was an otherwise messy game for the Raptors.
Outside of Leonard and VanVleet, Toronto shot 28.2 percent from the field (13-of-46 FG), but Leonard’s drive fueled a suffocating defensive effort against a Bucks team that owns the East’s best offensive rating in both the regular season and playoffs.
“As impressive as his offense is — and it's impressive — I get more impressed when he's down there guarding and making plays and blocking shots and flying in for rebounds,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said of Leonard, “and my favorite thing is when he just decides once or twice a game to just go take it from somebody and go the other way. Those are huge momentum plays, and that's impressive to me.”
The resiliency this Raptors team has demonstrated is remarkable considering their reputation for folding in the face of past playoff adversity. They were unaffected by Pascal Siakam picking up two early fouls and unfazed by Eric Bledsoe briefly shaking off his playoff rust to stake the Bucks to an 18-4 lead out of the gate. No amount of Antetokounmpo dunks and scowls would deter them this time around.
The Bucks were 33-0 this season when holding a lead entering the fourth quarter, and yet the Raptors handed them their first defeat despite no offensive production from Danny Green (0-for-3 FG) and next to nothing from Marc Gasol (1-for-6 FG).
It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that this performance came as questions arose about Leonard’s health. He limped through pain in his right leg through victories in Games 3 and 4 of this series, a year removed from an injury to that same leg cost him all but nine games last season with the San Antonio Spurs. It clearly bothered him again in Game 5, but he still had enough in the tank to run over the Bucks.
“I've been to The Finals,” said Leonard, who added seven rebounds and a career-high nine assists, “and it's pretty much nothing new I'm seeing out there. You've just got to have fun with it and enjoy it. We were down 10, and I told them to enjoy the moment and embrace it, and let's have fun and love it. This is why we're here.”
On the other side was Antetokounmpo, watching with a twisted ankle as Leonard pushed the lead to 99-95 in the last minute of their biggest game of the season.
Started to ask Giannis about watching the Celtics fold in Game 5 against the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals after the game. He cut me off.
"We're not going to fold."
I asked, "How do you know?" He responded: pic.twitter.com/sTQ0nTY0HP
— Eric Nehm (@eric_nehm) May 24, 2019
It was last year’s mysterious quadriceps injury that led to Leonard’s trade request and the limited market for the services of a 27-year-old who had previously been an MVP candidate. Raptors president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri gambled, trading the face of his franchise for Leonard, and on Thursday he won, as his team moved one step closer to the Finals than it had been with DeRozan at the helm.
Leonard is averaging 31.4 points on 51/41/89 shooting splits in these playoffs, while playing shutdown defense opposite an MVP candidate. That’s the stuff of Kevin Durant, of LeBron James, and — dare we say it — of Michael Jordan. You trade for that player 100 times out of 100 and hope it works out in the end.
It’s working out pretty darn well for Toronto. Leonard may well leave in free agency this summer, but nobody can ever take this run away from the Raptors. As Leonard told reporters after Game 5, “whatever happens after that is what happens.” For now, he is giving them a postseason performance for the ages, and if they win at home on Saturday, it’ll be harder than ever for him to say goodbye to this team.
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