Leonard, VanVleet lead Raptors to victory in own unique ways

Fred VanVleet scored 21 points off the bench and the Toronto Raptors defeated the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 5 to take a 3-2 series lead.

MILWAUKEE – One hero was a role player who has spent the past week trying to balance the competing demands of being a father for the second time with an uncompromising, high-stress job.

The other is a superstar effortlessly staying in the moment, exhibiting the kind of basketball zen under the most trying circumstances only the best at their craft can muster.

Toronto Raptors teammates Fred VanVleet and Kawhi Leonard couldn’t be more different as NBA players and their past few days were worlds apart.

But they came together in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals to deliver a signature win for their club, moving them ahead of the Milwaukee Bucks 3-2 in the best-of-seven series.

Most importantly, the 105-99 victory at Fiserv Forum means the Raptors are one game away from punching their ticket to the NBA Finals, a possibility that seems incongruous when held against the full 24-year history of the franchise, most of it spent on the not-so-cool margins of the star-driven league.

But here we are.

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These types of moments take extraordinary efforts, even by the standards of a Raptors post-season run that is over-flowing with them.

Consider VanVleet’s schedule this past week before playing the best playoff game of his life. On Sunday the Raptors point guard was trying to figure out the worst shooting slump of his career. After going 1-of-11 in Toronto’s double-overtime win in Game 3, VanVleet was shooting just 21 per cent from the floor over his previous 14 games. There were calls for a permanent benching.

On Monday he got word from his hometown of Rockford, Ill., where his longtime girlfriend Shontai Neal was awaiting the birth of their second child, Fred Jr. That’s when things got a little crazy.

In VanVleet’s words:

"Monday morning I thought I had a nice day off at home in Toronto, I got the call that her water broke, and I started running around trying to find if I could get on a plane. So made it to Rockford at about 3 p.m. [Monday] and spent the day at the hospital, and the baby boy came Monday night at 9:30 p.m.

"I stayed Tuesday, stayed in the morning, flew back, got to Toronto at 2 p.m. or 3 p.m, tried to take a little nap and headed to the arena for Game 4 … flew back [to Milwaukee] yesterday, took a car down to Rockford yesterday night and they were still in the hospital, so I spent the night at the hospital [Wednesday] night, and we were fortunate enough to get discharged this morning, so I drove down to Milwaukee [Thursday] afternoon, took another nap, if that’s what you call it, and laced them up again here for Game 5.

"So it’s been a frantic week."

And yet, somehow the new father became a new man.

He was 5-of-6 from the floor in his Game 4 breakout but that was just a warm-up for his worthy-of-framing effort in Game 5 when he set a Raptors playoff record with seven threes off the bench on nine attempts for 21 points. It seemed like every shot was a big shot, including a three early in the fourth quarter that gave the Raptors the lead as part of a 17-6 run to start the final period and then another with 2:19 left that broke a 93-93 tie and gave the Raptors the lead for good. His efforts earned him his first career trip to the post-game interview podium, a milestone for young players.

His formula for success?

"Zero sleep, have a lot of babies, and go out there and let loose," he said.

VanVleet’s frantic week was the perfect opposite of the calm Leonard exhibits in all things, seemingly, but never more than in the guts of a pivotal playoff game with 17,400 fans in full roar and chaos all around.

Leonard has been dealing with his own issues — primarily exhibiting signs of significant fatigue and possibly even injury — since his epic 52-minute hero’s walk in Toronto’s double-overtime Game 3 win when a loss would have almost certainly spelled the end of the Raptors’ dreams of an NBA Finals appearance.

His teammates picked him up in Game 4 and when Leonard took to the practice floor for the Raptors’ shootaround Thursday morning he was laughing and kidding with team’s training staff, looking perfectly at ease and not at all like an athlete worried if their body might be withering under the load just when he’s needed most.

Later in the day Leonard was honoured as a member of the all-NBA second team — a remarkable accomplishment given injuries limited him to nine games last season.

He’s only been better since the playoffs started. While VanVleet’s ability to deliver some support at crucial times loomed even larger considering the Raptors shot just 37 per cent from the floor for the game, it was Leonard who navigated the ship home, helping turn around a 75-72 Bucks lead at the end of three quarters by scoring 15 of his game-high 35 points in a fourth quarter explosion that included three of his career-high nine assists.

Sometimes you can only look on in wonder. The last time the Raptors played Game 5 of the Eastern Conference Finals it was against the Cleveland Cavaliers, who had LeBron James. It did not end well.

Now it’s the Raptors with the ultimate difference maker, and guess what? It makes a difference.

"It’s really different when you have a guy, when you’re with him every day and you’re witnessing it all,’ said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse when asked to assess ‘Playoff Kawhi.’ "I certainly remember he’s been unbelievable in the playoffs with the Spurs, as well, but you’re not as close to it … I can only state that he’s been really good, and it seems like he’s — I don’t know, it doesn’t look like — he gets stronger as the fourth wears on.

"He wants the ball, and he wants to make the plays, and he seems to be making the right play for the most part, and you’re almost shocked when he pulls up at 15 feet and it doesn’t go in. I mean, he vaults up there and he has a good release on it, you think, well, there’s two more, and it doesn’t go in, and you’re like, man, what happened?

"But he’s playing, and again, he’s playing at both ends. He’s rebounding. And again, it really gives the rest of the guys a lot of confidence when you’ve got a guy playing like that."

For Leonard it seems like breathing. The game is tight and the crowd is loud. But for him it’s time to chill everyone out and go to work.

Before the fourth quarter started Leonard said VanVleet told him to ‘go get it,’ so he did.

"I’m not afraid of the moment. I enjoy it," said Leonard. "This [is what] I work out for in the summer. You’ve just got to go out and shoot the ball, I guess. That’s my mindset. Get to a spot, try to help my teammates win the game. Just trying to win, either if it’s me scoring points or getting my teammates wide open looks, just out there trying to win."

The win wasn’t handed to the Raptors with a bow. They were nearly blown out early as they fell behind 18-4 and trailed after the first quarter 32-22. The Bucks rode the electricity of the crowd and got a charge from Malcom Brogdon, inserted as a starter for Nikola Mirotic, who scored eight of his 18 points in the first period. But the Raptors absorbed the body blow and were able to pull back into the game on the strength of their defence as they held the Bucks without a field goal for five minutes in the second quarter and only trailed 49-46 at half.

"We got our feet under us a little bit and I think from the second quarter — I don’t know the numbers but our defence felt a heck of a lot better," said Nurse of his club, which held the Bucks to 42 per cent shooting over the final three quarters.

Most vital, they were able to keep the reins on Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo, who once more struggled to generate any offence in five-on-five situations. He finished with 24 points on 9-of-18 shooting in his 39 minutes but the Raptors’ commitment to showing him as many defenders as often as possible is paying dividends.

"It’s just trying to keep bodies in front of him," said Raptors points guard Kyle Lowry, who chipped in 17 points, six assists and seven rebounds. "You can’t stop him. I mean, he’s unbelievable. He’s most likely MVP of the league, All-NBA, All-Defence — he’s unbelievable. But as a basketball team, you have to throw bodies at him and try to just keep multiple hands, forearms, six eyes, just try to keep individuals in front of him."

It helped too that the Raptors made just six turnovers for the game, four of which came in the first four minutes. The lack of mistakes limited the chances for Antetokounmpo and the Bucks to run, at which point they are lethal.

But even as Toronto surged in the fourth there were some moments where the game could have flipped on a dime. Twice in the final minute Toronto had calls overturned in their favour under replay review — the first being what would have been a 24-second violation on an air ball by Leonard turning into a trip to the free-throw line for Marc Gasol with 34.7 seconds left. The second was on what was judged a turnover out of bounds by Brogdan with 27 seconds left that got the Raptors the ball back up three.

On the ensuing inbounds the Bucks tried to foul and Leonard nearly had his pass picked off before Lowry was able to shovel it ahead for a game-sealing dunk by Pascal Siakam.

The Raptors weathered the storm and will return to Toronto with a chance to advance to the NBA Finals against the Golden State Warriors in part thanks to a struggling point guard who is now shooting 80-per-cent from three since his son was born and a superstar who seems to thrive under pressure, if he even notices it.

It’s an unusual formula but it worked for the Raptors in Game 5.

Now the franchise that has known mainly heartbreak in the post-season — that has spent nearly a quarter century on the outside looking in — is one win away from a seat at the table, and a chance to win it all.


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