Toronto Raptors, NBA Finalists.
Has a nice ring to it, don’t it?
The Raptors have done it, rebounding from a 2-0 series deficit and capping off four straight wins over the favoured Milwaukee Bucks to win the East and book a spot in the Finals, which will tip-off in Toronto on Thursday night.
Saturday’s 100-94 win saw everything that brought the Raptors to this moment in history: Stellar, suffocating defence down the stretch, a supporting cast stepping up when it matters most, a typical lay-it-on-the-line effort from Kyle Lowry, and yet another heroic and dominant night from Canada’s latest hero, Kawhi Leonard.
In the city it was a celebration. Those covering the sport outside of our country may not have been able to quite grasp the magnitude of last night’s win, but walked away impressed by what the Raptors — and their fan base — showed nonetheless.
As we do following each Raptors playoff game, let’s take a look at what the out-of-town media are saying about an unforgettable night in Raptorland:
“This is awesome. This is the signature moment” Kenny Smith says of Leonard’s posterizing dunk on Giannis Antetokounmpo in the fourth quarter, as the Inside the NBA crew break down the biggest win in Raps history:
ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz breaks down the 26-3 run the Raptors made in the second half to mount a comeback and take the lead over Milwaukee down the stretch:
There’s very little about Kawhi Leonard that screams “mindfulness guru,” but as the Toronto Raptors gathered on the bench during a timeout in the midst of the team’s big 26-3 run in the second half, he told his teammates, “Enjoy the moment, stay here, stay together, we’re good,” according to Raptors guard Norman Powell.
…A dynamic run like the one the Raptors enjoyed Saturday night must, almost by definition, be as driven by defensive stops as by offensive scores. And for every three-pointer and transition bucket, there was a less photogenic sound rotation and ball denial. Whether it was Siakam switching onto Eric Bledsoe and inducing an off-balanced runner toward the end of the third quarter, or a brilliant sequence after a turnover early in the fourth in which the Raptors blunted a half-dozen actions by Milwaukee in a possession that resulted in a desperation heave by Hill at the shot-clock buzzer, the Raptors put on a defensive clinic during the run.
…The Bucks were worn, as the Raptors maintained the lead until the final horn sounded and confetti fell. A Toronto team that had been entirely dependent on Leonard succeeded both with him and without him during a historic run that will have a prominent place in the franchise’s time capsule.
In Haley O’Shaughnessy’s ‘Winners & Losers’ column, it may not surprise you to learn that the Raps’ two most important players both cracked the “winners” list:
Winner: Kyle Lowry
Pour one out for DeMar DeRozan. I imagine he’s somewhere in Texas where Texans go to be very sad, like a saloon or in a car driving past the rival high school that beat them in the state championship 17 years ago or Jerry Jones’s house. But I have to also think DeRozan is happy for his good friend Kyle Lowry, the last remnant of the OG Raptors and the only one to get a shot at going where no Raptor has gone before: the Finals.
Just reaching the Finals changes Lowry’s legacy with the franchise. For all his lows through the years, including all of those ghastly Game 1 performances, he is now part of the team that made history. Lowry was solid throughout this Bucks series. There was no classic playoff Lowry game (for the record, a classic playoff Lowry game is not a good thing), and he averaged 19.2 points and shot 46.9 per cent from behind the arc while still doing typical under-the-radar Lowry things, like throwing his body before a driver and nudging his 6-foot-1 frame through rebounding scrums. Lowry won’t ever be the protagonist who wins it all for the Raptors—DeRozan wasn’t even enough to do that for Toronto—but he’s earned a shining spot in Raptors history.
USA Today’s Jeff Zillgitt points back to Game 2 as a turning point for the Raps in the series and the adjustments the team made en route to four straight wins and an Eastern conference championship:
…Nurse wanted the Raptors to be more physical, play with more effort and not make the game so easy for the Bucks, especially on defense against Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo and Milwaukee’s three-point shooters.
But that wasn’t all. Starting with Game 3, Nurse made Toronto star Kawhi Leonard spend more time defending Antetokounmpo, he gave more playing time to Norman Powell, and surprising everyone who watched this series, Raptors guard Fred VanVleet summoned his best Steph Curry impersonation and couldn’t miss from three-point range.
“The unsung hero of the game was Fred VanVleet,” says the ESPN talking head, who gives ‘credit where credit is due’ to the Raptors’ supporting cast — but can’t go against picking the Warriors in the next round:
The headline says it all:
Just as he has all throughout these playoffs, Leonard was dominant again in Game 6, finishing with 27 points, 17 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals and 2 blocks to lead the Raptors to a fourth straight victory over the Bucks as Toronto — the team that has fallen short so many times over the past few years — finally had its day in the sun.
It did so because of the trade Ujiri swung for Leonard last summer, sending out franchise icon DeMar DeRozan — along with Jakob Poeltl and a first-round NBA draft pick — for the superstar forward plus Danny Green. After the Raptors had seen their season end for three straight years at the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, Ujiri was determined for things to be different.
And, thanks to Leonard, they are.