The Toronto Raptors defeated the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 6, advancing to the NBA Finals.
Masai Ujiri, President of the Toronto Raptors, shared an embrace with Kyle Lowry after the game. They’ve been with the Raptors since 2013 and 2012, respectively. Ujiri, already thinking ahead to the next series, told Lowry simply: “We gonna win it.”
The hill they have to climb to fulfill Ujiri’s proclamation is a big one. But looking at the hill they already climbed, it’s easy to see why Ujiri thinks anything is possible.
Kyle Lowry knows better than anyone how big this moment is. Since he came to the Raptors 7 years ago, his team has had its fair share of disappointments. He could look back to the 2014 team that won 49 games but was upset by the Washington Wizards in an embarrassing sweep. He could look to 2016 when LeBron James’s Cleveland Cavaliers dismissed his Raptors in 6 games in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Last year, they were finally favored over a Cavaliers team that looked as vulnerable as it had ever been, but LeBron James again dismissed them, this time in 4 games. That’s the way it’s been for the Raptors; phenomenal regular season successes, high expectations, and crushing failures in the playoffs. Writers joked that they’d never, under any circumstances, trust the Raptors.
A lot of teams would have blown it up, conceding that it wasn’t working and trading the core for young pieces. But Toronto never did – it kept improving at the margins, bringing in veterans like Serge Ibaka and finding gems like Norman Powell late in the draft. They traded for Marc Gasol midseason, betting his veteran savvy would raise their ceiling that much more. And of course – in what might prove to be the most impactful trade of this decade – they traded DeMar DeRozan, one of the most beloved players in franchise history, for Kawhi Leonard. The general sense was that it was a huge risk, because Leonard would surely leave town if this season proved to be a failure.
Sure enough, the risk paid off.
It paid off when he single-handedly dragged Toronto back in the third. He scored 12 points and had some beautiful assists with Giannis on the bench. As the announcers questioned whether leaving him on the floor to end the third was wise, questioning how much fuel he had left in the tank, he lept from the free throw line through a sea of Bucks to secure an offensive rebound and get back to the line. He scored 27 points, and the Raptors were +7 in the minutes he played (-1 in the minutes he sat).
The Raptors did it, ultimately, with their defense. Leonard and Pascal Siakam played phenomenal defense against Giannis Antetokounmpo, holding him to just 21 points. The Raptors “built a wall” in the paint like the Celtics tried but failed to do, holding them to 24 points from within 5 feet. They averaged 41.4 per game in the playoffs.
Leonard was phenomenal, but they had contributions from all over. Fred VanVleet, who has been out-of-his-mind hot since the birth of his son earlier this week, hit three threes in the first half. Right when it felt like the Raptors were finally about to cool down in the fourth, he hit a wild side-step three to keep the momentum going. Siakam had some ugly possessions but did his job, chipping in 18 points and some excellent defense on Giannis. Gasol, who had no shot attempts in the first half, chipped in two big threes in the second half, and his defensive IQ was on full display throughout. He seemed to know exactly when to bring the double team and when to fall back to the rim.
It looked like it was going to be a Bucks win early on. The Bucks had 7 offensive rebounds in the first half to Toronto’s 0. Toronto, after a great Game 5 controlling the ball, already had 6 turnovers at the 7-minute mark of the 2nd quarter. Milwaukee was a +13 in the first half with Giannis in the game (he wasn’t scoring much, but his defense was elite; he already had 2 steals and 1 block after the first quarter, and even those stats seemed to undersell how impactful he had been). The Raptors trailed 76-61 at one point in the third.
Then, it was all Raptors. They went on a 26-3 run, playing absolutely suffocating defense. Kawhi carried them through the early part of the run at the end of the third, then the three-guard lineup – Lowry, VanVleet and Norman Powell – carried out the run with Kawhi on the bench. The defense was a beautiful harmony of switching and pre-switching (the Raptors are so smart on defense that they see actions that force a switch coming, and “pre-switch” so they can keep favorable defensive matchups). The offense produced enough to stay afloat until Kawhi came back, and from there the Raptors held control.
“Throughout the year, we knew what we wanted to accomplish. We knew what we wanted to achieve,” Lowry told The Athletic after the game. “But you kind of get there, you don’t realize it until you’re up 3-2, that it’s possible. You never think about it.”
Milwaukee was +3 last night with Giannis on the floor and -9 when he sat. For a player as athletically gifted as Giannis, it’s hard to envision him playing 48 minutes in an elimination game like LeBron James has had to do. His 40:32 last night was his highest mark of the playoffs in a non-overtime game; that feels low considering how much Milwaukee needed him.
People are going to point to that, and Coach Budenholzer’s still questionable playoff record (that out-of-timeout play at the end with Giannis rolling to the rim was bad – Pascal Siakam deserves credit for swatting the entry pass away, but the way Bud drew it up really opened the door for a turnover), and the fact that Milwaukee couldn’t score in the half-court against Toronto (0.87 points per-halfcourt possession, which is shockingly low for a team that excelled in the half-court all season long) and wonder if Milwaukee has enough. Don’t be fooled – they do. The Philadelphia 76ers do, too. For the first time in a long time, there are three elite teams at the top of the East. Barring free agency departures, all three should be right in the thick of it again next season.
But this season, no matter what happens against the Warriors or in free agency, belongs to the Raptors.
Looking back at the last time the Raptors played so late into the season, his 2016 loss to the Cavaliers, Lowry – the one who’s been here all along, who sacrifices his body on a nightly basis even at the age of 33, who is playing through a left thumb injury that’ll require offseason surgery, who has finally shed his reputation as a playoff underperformer – had this to say.
“It was a waste of a year. It was a bad feeling. But that feeling is over.”