For more than two decades, it’s been impossible to envision the Toronto Raptors in the NBA Finals. Encumbered by expansion-team stigma and high-profile postseason failures, the organization has evolved from a laughingstock, to an afterthought, to an acquired taste, before settling in as a bridesmaid.
But the Raptors’ path to the NBA’s grandest stage opened wide Thursday, as Kawhi Leonard sized up Milwaukee Bucks center Brook Lopez. Toronto’s prized trade acquisition — the best player in franchise history the moment he showed up for training camp in September— rocked the 7-footer with a series of dribbles before burying a three-pointer early in the fourth quarter of Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals. Seconds later, he did it again.
Leonard scored 15 of his game-high 35 points in the final period of a 105-99 road victory over the Bucks, giving the Raptors a 3-2 series lead. The two-time defensive player of the year turned in another masterful performance guarding Giannis Antetokounmpo, but it was his closeout confidence that has brought Toronto within one win of its first Finals trip and has Leonard on the doorstep of a rematch with the Golden State Warriors that is two years in the making.
“I’m not afraid of the moment,” Leonard said, in the well-honed monotone of a man perpetually unimpressed by his own accomplishments. “I enjoy it.”
It would have been inconceivable for any member of last year’s Raptors — who were swept out of the playoffs by the Cleveland Cavaliers — to deliver those words in a convincing fashion, let alone outplay Antetokounmpo, the league’s presumptive MVP.
Yet Leonard commanded this series for the third straight game, powering through Milwaukee’s defense to earn free throws down the stretch and sticking tightly to Antetokounmpo, who scored just six of his 24 points in the final period. As Leonard exploited Lopez and worked toward his spots, his teammates’ confidence swelled. As Antetokounmpo plunged into a sea of bodies and repeatedly came up empty, the Bucks cracked.
“In the fourth quarter, you know whose time it is for that,” Raptors guard Fred VanVleet said of Leonard. “To have a guy like that to close them out is what you need.”
VanVleet scored 21 points and made a career-high seven three-pointers, posting a plus-28 in 37 minutes off the bench and outscoring Milwaukee’s second unit by himself. Four of VanVleet’s three-pointers, including a go-ahead triple with 2:19 remaining in the game, were assisted by Leonard, who registered a career-high nine assists.
Game 5 provided a guided tour of Leonard’s wide-ranging impact, in large part because his moments of solo brilliance — like the back-to-back threes over Lopez — were surrounded by extended stretches of cohesive team play.
Leonard moved the ball and trusted his supporting cast, even as Milwaukee raced out to an 18-4 lead. On the other end, his persistent hassling of Antetokounmpo was the centerpiece of an energetic, help-heavy defense that did what so few teams are capable of doing: clogging the paint to thwart Milwaukee’s superstar while also racing out to challenge its many shooters.
“They’ve done a good job guarding the three and limiting our attempts,” guard Malcolm Brogdon saidafter Milwaukee shot below its season average on threes for the fifth time in five games.
This version of the Raptors — balanced, empowered, playing with energy as a five-man unit — hasn’t always been there, even during this postseason run, but it’s a sight to behold. Should the Raptors win Game 6 in Toronto on Saturday, Leonard will get his long-awaited rematch with the Warriors, albeit while wearing a different jersey and under entirely different circumstances.
Back in May 2017, the San Antonio Spurs were leading the Warriors 76-55 in the third quarter of Game 1 of the Western Conference finals. Warriors center Zaza Pachulia then infamously slid under Leonard, then the Spurs’ star, while he was attempting a corner jumper. Leonard fell to the court clutching his ankle in pain, the Warriors ripped off a second-half comeback to steal Game 1, and Leonard sat out the rest of the series.
Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich lit up Pachulia in the media for the reckless play, but the Warriors went on to claim a four-game sweep. Leonard played just nine more games with the Spurs and spent much of the 2017-18 season away from the team while recovering from a quadriceps injury that created a rift between him and the team before he was eventually traded to the Raptors.
In hindsight, that injury was a turning point for the West finals, the 2017 title chase, Leonard’s career, and the Spurs’ long-term plan of building around him. Now, it’s become a prelude to the Raptors’ best chance yet to break through to win the East and achieve the validation they’ve long sought. Of course, Toronto must win one more game to punch its Finals ticket and write Leonard’s revenge story.
After the Raptors opened the East finals facing questions about fatigue and injuries to their key players, that talk has shifted to the Bucks. Antetokounmpo appeared tired and out of rhythm during stretches of Game 5, and he was pulled from the court late in the fourth quarter after spraining his right ankle.
Bucks Coach Mike Budenholzer explained that decision by saying that his star “looked like he was in a lot of pain and couldn’t move,″ and Antetokounmpo eventually reentered the game. With their season on the line in Game 6, Antetokounmpo promised that the reeling Bucks are “not going to fold” despite their first three-game losing streak of the season.
To pull Milwaukee out of this hole, though, Antetokounmpo must find a way to reestablish himself as the series’ central force. With Leonard standing in his way and not giving an inch, he’s running out of space and time.