The Kawhi Leonard trade was worth it. After years of slamming their heads into a LeBron James-enforced glass ceiling, the Raptors are headed to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history, securing a come-from-behind, 100–94 win over the Bucks in Game 6 of the East Finals. The Raptors overcame a 15-point deficit in a dramatic second half Saturday, and now they’ll face the Warriors in the championship round beginning May 30.
Simply put: Leonard cemented himself as the best player in the NBA against the Bucks. With Kevin Durant injured out West, and Kawhi facing an athletic marvel in Giannis Antetokounmpo, Leonard delivered with aplomb on both sides of the floor in the conference finals. He scored 27 points in the decisive Game 6, while collecting seven assists and a whopping 17 rebounds, including four massive ones off the offensive glass. Kawhi scored 19 points in the second half, continuing the trend of him outplaying Antetokounmpo in the game’s most crucial moments.
Kawhi’s play over the last four games was exactly why Masai Ujiri parted with longtime franchise favorite DeMar DeRozan last summer. Leonard is able to exert control over a game in a way reserved for the elitist of the elite. His imprint was all over Game 6, from timely buckets to his lockdown defense on Antetokounmpo, to his impressive passing after commanding double teams. Leonard carried a Herculean burden offensively, while forcing Giannis into easily his worst series of the playoffs on the other end of the floor. And he’s the biggest reason the Raptors will be headed to the Finals.
Over the last four games of the series, Toronto forced Milwaukee to play in mud, and the Bucks faltered when the games slowed to a snail’s pace. The Raptors thrived in the half court, and Saturday received timely contributions from the likes of Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet. After shooting 7-of-9 from three in Game 5, VanVleet followed up with a 4-of-5 performance from beyond the arc in Game 6. Toronto connected at a higher rate than Milwaukee from deep, while also outscoring the Bucks from midrange and in the paint. Milwaukee was simply not built to play these type of half-court contests, and its offense looked bogged down for the fourth straight game.
Antetokounmpo will undoubtedly use this series as a learning experience. Leonard shut him down defensively when the two were matched up. Giannis was inconsistent at best in the half court, and at times he looked hesitant to shoot, all while also struggling from the free throw line. The Bucks’ supporting cast couldn’t bail out Antetokounmpo despite all the attention he drew in the paint, a concerning thought as the team heads toward a pivotal offseason. The stats from Games 3–6 paint a grim picture for the Bucks. Their offensive rating, a sterling 113.5 during the regular season, plummeted to 102.3 during the four-game losing streak. The pace of the final four games was a deliberate 94.6, which undoubtedly exacerbated Milwaukee’s struggles.
But Saturday, and this series, will ultimately be about Leonard. He's playing better now than he did when he won Finals MVP in 2014. Leonard’s last playoff run saw him take a massive leap, and he’s again taken his game to another level. He’s become an equalizer for the Raptors. If, and when, everyone else on the floor is struggling, Nick Nurse can call an iso for Kawhi and expect a bucket. When an opponent presents an until-this-moment unstoppable offensive force, Nurse can ask Kawhi to check him defensively and slow him down considerably. It’s unclear what Leonard’s presence will mean in a series against the Warriors, but the fact that he can credibly be the best player on the floor at times during that matchup speaks to not only why Toronto acquired him, but also how well Kawhi has played throughout this postseason.
For the Raptors, the work is not done. Golden State is the favorite, but particularly with Durant’s injury, the Warriors are probably in their most vulnerable state of the last three years. Toronto will have a legitimate belief at the start of the Finals, which is probably much more than whatever the Cavaliers had at the start of last year’s championship. But this Raptors season is already a success. Last summer’s makeover—and the continuing tinkering at the trade deadline—worked exactly as intended. And now, Toronto is headed to its first-ever Finals, with an unquestioned superstar at the height of his power—another franchise first—leading the charge.