MILWAUKEE — This was the moment Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri envisioned when he pulled the trigger on risky moves, sending good players away in the pursuit of great ones, firing a good coach in search of better results.
Good wasn’t going to get it done in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals against the Milwaukee Bucks, and if we’re being honest, “good” would’ve gotten sent home in the semifinals before “great” met “luck” in the right corner on a Sunday evening.
On this Thursday night, a game — and perhaps a series — was for the taking.
For once, Ujiri had the best player on his side — the one the opposition fears giving an inch to before he inevitably takes it anyway — and no limp or fatigue was going to get in Kawhi Leonard’s way.
Two straight devastating triples sent shockwaves through the Fiserv Forum early in the fourth quarter, giving the Raptors an 85-81 lead they wouldn’t relinquish in the biggest game in franchise history, a 105-99 victory to push them one win from their first trip to the NBA Finals.
Leonard may not be the league MVP, but he snatched the game into his massive hands with 35 points, nine assists and seven rebounds, hitting 5-of-8 triples in 40 often-agonizing minutes.
He’s been playing through a leg injury that produces a limp, or at least a ginger walk in the locker room, and teammates will only speak of admiration for the former NBA Finals MVP without revealing specifics.
Ujiri tried his best to keep his composure following the game, exchanging fist bumps with every player who passed through the hallway en route to the locker room. His contained poise mirrored the play of the roster he constructed, the Raptors surviving a first-quarter 18-4 blitz from an energetic Bucks team.
When the Bucks looked up minutes later, they realized their opponent wasn’t broken or shaken up by the ghosts from a Game 2 rout — or from a franchise history that has seen more postseason disappointment than triumph in recent years.
“I’ve been here before, and it’s pretty much nothing new that I’m seeing out there,” Leonard said. “Like I told them tonight, we were down 10, I told them to enjoy the moment and embrace it, let’s have fun and love it. This is why we’re here.”
More pointedly, this is why Leonard’s here. Ujiri saw a chance to acquire an otherworldly talent and didn’t flinch a year ago, even if it meant trading mainstay DeMar DeRozan and the commitment DeRozan gave to the franchise and the city.
Ujiri took the criticism with the belief it would all pay off, giving Leonard a quiet environment and care for a body that was battered along with a reputation that had been slightly bruised.
No promises were given regarding Leonard’s impending free agency and none were asked for from Ujiri. He merely rolled the dice on Nick Nurse as a coach and Leonard as a star closer when healthy — and some.
“It’s a great opportunity. Like I said, this is what you work out for in the summer, is to win basketball games,” Leonard said.
With no LeBron James at the end of every yellow brick road, Ujiri fearlessly took a chance in believing that Leonard would be right, and ready to seize the moment when it arrived — while also forging a roster that could be good enough to set the stage for Leonard.
The birth of Fred VanVleet’s child has given life to a game that looked lost a few days ago, as he hit seven threes Thursday night that ranged from rhythmic and luck-driven to determined, adding some spice to the toughness provided by Serge Ibaka and Norman Powell.
Marc Gasol looks old one minute, experienced the next. Pascal Siakam looks addicted to the whistle of silly fouls, but then will swat Antetokounmpo’s layup to Kenosha seconds later.
It’s a roster with Finals experience, champions and playoff veterans, guys who wouldn’t necessarily be torn up about dropping the first two games of the East finals. “It's easy for a team to quit,” Raptors guard Danny Green told Yahoo Sports. “They start getting more doubt and it lingers and it's hard to win a game when you're doubting yourself and you think a team is better than you. We didn't think we were outmatched or outmanned.”
The Raptors’ resilience has been quiet, probably due to the doubt the masses have expressed from seeing the same movie one too many times. Usually when the Raptors get hit, they stagger and prepare for the knockout.
But they’ve delivered the biggest blow to the team with the league’s best record, with the likely MVP in Antetokounmpo, who looks ready to run things for the next decade. The Bucks hadn’t lost three games in a row all season, and their inexperience is showing.
It wasn’t panic, but the unfamiliarity of the moment. They haven’t been faced with pressure to win all season after stomping through Detroit and Boston in the first two rounds of the playoffs.
The Raptors have navigated through adversity, dropping the playoff opener to the Orlando Magic and then going through an emotional, seesaw series against the Philadelphia 76ers. For what it took out of them physically and mentally, it did provide a bit of a blueprint of what they would employ against Antetokounmpo: walling off the similarly built Ben Simmons, forcing him into indecision and inactivity with double teams and aggressive play.
They confused Antetokounmpo again, and it’s likely a game several Bucks would like to do over — or if nothing else, have as a lesson learned should this series send them home for the summer.
Perhaps the Bucks’ road has been too easy, and they’ve been anointed too soon before going through the necessary heartbreaks. Or maybe the Raptors have been through enough, individually and collectively through the years, that an injury isn’t a deterrent but an instrument of freedom — as in the oven mitt on Kyle Lowry’s left thumb.
“He's not really worried about his performance, he's more worried about the injuries and how he's fighting through it and doing what he needs to do for us,” Green told Yahoo Sports about Lowry. “I was just gonna say, ‘Carefree.’ I think the injuries help that. When you play carefree, you play your best basketball.”
If Lowry is turning the narrative on himself as a playoff performer, Leonard is re-introducing himself at the time of year he was initially discovered, as a defensive-stopper for the San Antonio Spurs.
Now, he’s a do-it-all scoring machine who doesn’t shy away from any moment.
“Come in, have fun, try to execute the best I can and play confident, and whatever happens after that is what happens,” Leonard said. “I can live with the results because I’m having fun and putting my all out on the floor.”
The best team still hasn’t identified itself, but it’s clear who the best player is and who brought him to this spot — a risk Masai Ujiri has no regrets about taking.
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