Raptors conquered biggest hurdle on path to title in Game 3 vs. Bucks

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2) drives to the net around Milwaukee Bucks guard Malcolm Brogdon (13) during Game 3 of the 2019 Eastern Conference Finals. (Nathan Denette/CP)

You can relive Game 3 of the Raptors’ series against the Bucks Friday at 8 p.m. ET on Sportsnet and SN ONE. Game 4 airs Saturday at 8 p.m. ET on TSN. The full broadcast schedule for the re-airing of Toronto’s historic 2019 championship playoff run can be found here.

After decades starved for a championship, how the Toronto Raptors finally won one probably wasn’t going to matter.

Had they made like the ‘83 Philadelphia 76ers or the 2001 Los Angeles Lakers and essentially run the table — each of those clubs lost just once on the way to their respective titles — everyone would have been good with it.

And had they maybe taken a more typical path — see the Golden State Warriors model in 2016 and 2017 — where they coast through the first couple of rounds before running into some resistance but never really seeming like their title hopes were at risk?

Everyone would have signed up for that, undoubtedly.

But what made the Raptors’ run so captivating, so special — besides the mere fact it happened — was that there were so many twists and turns and cliff hangers.

There was nothing inevitable about it, and nothing — no single moment — captures that more that Game 3 of their Eastern Conference Final against the Milwaukee Bucks.

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Game 7 against Philadelphia and The Shot gets all the pub, but it overlooks the fact that the score was tied. Had Kawhi Leonard’s game-winner bounced four times and rolled out, the Raptors would have been lining up on their home court for a five-minute overtime, score tied, series tied, their lineup intact.

Their fate would have still been in their hands. All Leonard did was snatch any hope from Philadelphia.

Contrast that to the hole the Raptors had dug for themselves heading into Game 3 against reigning NBA MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks:

The Raptors trailed 0-2 and were coming off a blowout loss in Milwaukee that was over by halftime as the Raptors trailed by 25 after two quarters.

Even in the face of that debacle Toronto was pretending to be confident. I remember passing Raptors president Masai Ujiri in the halls of Fiserv Forum and giving him kind of a sympathetic look. He wasn’t having it. “We’re gonna be fine,” he said.

I didn’t believe him. The Bucks were 10-1 in the post-season at that point, building convincingly on a league-best 64-win regular season. Antetokounmpo was averaging 27 points, 12 rebounds and nearly five assists in just 33 minutes a game in the playoffs.

What were the Raptors going to do to stop that train?

Sure, the Raptors had already stepped up a couple of times with big wins in Game 2 against Orlando, Game 4 against Philly and of course Game 7 against the Sixers.

But the Bucks seemed a different beast and the Raptors seemed spent, lost at the bottom of a well with no rope. Marc Gasol was playing the worst basketball of his career — he was 3-of-20 through the Games 1 and 2 and the load Leonard was carrying seemed to be wearing him down as he was 30-of-74 (40.5 per cent) in his previous three games going back to Game 7 against the 76ers.

Game 3 might as well have been an elimination game.

Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo (34) reaches in on Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2). (Frank Gunn/CP)

In 132 tries no team in NBA history has every come back from trailing 3-0 in a seven-game series, according to Whowins.com. In the four major North American sports teams that go up 3-0 in seven-game series are 353-5. Like, lose this game and the Raptors were toast. Their one year with Leonard quite possibly would have ended in a sweep, just like their seasons had in 2016 and 2017.

And – as you might remember – they almost did exactly that. Lose the game.

You can’t teeter on the brink more than having to go into double-overtime with Kyle Lowry and Norm Powell having both fouled out — Lowry being Lowry and Powell having a ‘playoff Norm’ night, as he was part of a Raptors bench renaissance that was the difference in the last half of the playoffs. Powell was the first to pop as he put up 19 desperately needed points on 13 shots before fouling out in the final minute of regulation.

Their minutes went to Danny Green and Fred VanVleet who were dreadful offensively, and finished a combined 2-of-20 for the game and missed 12 of their 14 threes.

Seriously. And Serge Ibaka was 2-of-9.

Still, somehow the Raptors never trailed in the fourth quarter and only trailed by two briefly early in the second overtime, but they blew an eight-point lead with nine minutes left in the fourth and a five-point lead with 69 seconds left.

They blew a chance to win the game in regulation when Pascal Siakam bricked two free throws with 7.4 seconds to go. They couldn’t finish the Bucks in the first overtime even as the Raptors were running out of players.

They kept letting Milwaukee in the game. Toronto kept dancing on the freeway at rush hour. They might have felt confident but they were one misstep from disaster, and what a different story that season would have been.

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard (2) reacts following the Raptors win against the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 3 of the NBA Eastern Conference Finals. (Nathan Denette/CP)

Somehow they won, and they earned it. There was no load management. Leonard played a career-high 52 minutes — including 22-straight starting from the end of the first quarter — and found some hidden reservoir of adrenaline in the second overtime to score eight of his game-high 36, with his steal and dunk and another lay-up off a spectacular Siakam block standing as the signature plays of extra time.

“It says everything. It says everything,” Siakam — who scored 25 points, grabbed nine rebounds and had five assists, two steals — said after the game of his team’s level of fight. “…I think that’s just the mentality that we have as a group.

“…We’ve got to continue to fight every single night and just go out there and let it out on the floor, and at the end of the day we’re going to live with the results because we know how much work we put in. We know how bad we want it.”

The Raptors also seemed to have figured out how to slow down Antetokounmpo, as they gave Leonard a heavy dose of minutes guarding him with Siakam next in line. In 60 possessions against either one or the other, Antetokounmpo managed just four points. It was a formula the Raptors leaned on heavily the rest of the series.

They still had a mountain to climb. Leonard was banged up, having come up favouring his knee a couple of times. The Bucks were still up 2-1 and had homecourt advantage.

But the Raptors had stood with their heels hanging over the edge of the abyss and pushed back. They had hope.

They might not have known it at the time, but with the benefit of time it’s clear that they had gotten past their biggest hurdle to winning the NBA title.

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