The Toronto Raptors engineered another double-digit second-half comeback, beat the Milwaukee Bucks for a fourth straight time, and booked the first Finals appearance in franchise history.
Here are some takeaways from Toronto's history-making 100-94 win on Saturday night:
Before Game 6 began, Raptors coach Nick Nurse was asked how much of the outcome would come down to simple effort and execution, and how much would depend on Xs and Os. He pegged the effort portion of the equation at 85 percent.
"We end up showing them all these clips and all these coverages and all these matchups," Nurse said, according to Arden Zwelling of Sportsnet. "And at the end of it, almost every time, I say, 'This is about 15 percent of the game.' The rest of it is, are we going to sprint back and are we going to communicate great and are we going to get physical? Are we going to get into bodies? Are we going to block out with some toughness?"
Over the course of the series, and finally, emphatically, in Game 6, the Raptors showed just how committed they are to the 85 percent. First, they dropped an absolute gut punch of a Game 1 - the kind you usually can't afford to let slip away against a team as good as Milwaukee. Then they got their doors blown off in Game 2 to fall into an 0-2 hole that only five teams had ever climbed out of in a conference final. They came home for two virtual must-win games - the first of which saw them pushed to two overtimes with their starting point guard fouled out for the final 15 minutes; the second of which saw their superstar playing on one good leg - and took both. They went back on the road for Game 5, got hit in the mouth right off the bat, still trailed by 12 points midway through the third quarter, and came roaring back to hand the Bucks their first three-game losing streak of the season.
Saturday's clincher followed a similar pattern. The Bucks led by 13 after a quarter and stretched the lead back to 15 with just two minutes left in the third. They were making shots and the Raptors weren't. They were coming up with rebounds and the Raptors weren't. They were getting to the free-throw line and the Raptors weren't.
But then those resilient Raptors returned, with a vengeance. They ripped off a 10-0 run to close the quarter, sparked by Kawhi Leonard, to make the deficit manageable. And with Leonard starting the fourth on the bench, they continued to eat into the lead, and eventually grabbed it themselves. Once they did, they didn't relinquish it. By the time all was said and done, the run would swell to 26-3 over less than eight minutes of game time.
None of this would be possible without the Raptors' immense talent at both ends of the floor. But there is a character about this team that's revealed itself during this postseason. When they need a lift, someone steps up and makes a play. Leonard hits a huge shot or beats out three guys for an offensive rebound; Kyle Lowry draws a charge, picks someone's pocket, or dives to save a loose ball; Marc Gasol stones someone at the rim, or drains a timely three; Pascal Siakam closes out to the corner, or blows up a lob. When they need to lock in, their defense becomes completely suffocating (the 76ers can probably commiserate with the Bucks right now).
"One thing I've learned about those moments: It's about toughness," Serge Ibaka said after the game. "I don't care what talent you have, if you don't have toughness, you don't want to be here."
You certainly can't say these Raptors don't want to be here.
The Bucks were the fourth-ranked offense in the league during the regular season, and they ranked second among the 16 playoff teams through two rounds. But against an elite Raptors defense, they had some cracks exposed.
In the conference finals, Milwaukee scored just 106.3 points per 100 possessions, which would've ranked 26th during the regular season. And that still doesn't tell the full story. When the Bucks were forced to go up against the Raptors' set defense in the half court, that number plummeted to 84.
The Bucks thrived all year by playing a four-out scheme while having Giannis Antetokounmpo attack a spread floor. They didn't incorporate a ton of pick-and-rolls or weak-side actions, and it didn't really matter. Giannis would flatten whoever was in front of him, or collapse the defense and create open threes for his teammates. But the Raptors' long-armed, active, sophisticated strategy made both of those things difficult. Having Giannis attack from up top brought diminishing returns, as he repeatedly slammed into a wall of Raptors. And the Bucks struggled mightily to adjust.
The issue wasn't just Antetokounmpo's lack of a jumper, but also his lack of an in-between game - a floater or a push shot that can keep sagging defenses honest, or a tight handle that can shield the ball from marauding help defenders. Too often during this series, when the Raptors doubled him on the baseline, he would either immediately retreat or pick up his dribble altogether, rather than trying to keep it alive, string out the trap, and/or wait for a cut.
One of his most damning possessions of the series came with just under two minutes to play in Game 6 with the Bucks trailing by five. Antetokounmpo caught the ball on the roll, about 8 feet from the hoop, with Gasol rotating over to deter him. Giannis took one dribble to his right, picked the ball up as Fred VanVleet jumped toward him, and kicked it out to the perimeter. The possession ended with a Khris Middleton desperation heave. Giannis never even looked at the rim.
The blockbuster matchup was in the frontcourt, but the battle of the backcourts had a lot to say about the outcome of this series. In Game 6, Lowry and VanVleet, two point guards generously listed at 6-foot, made countless impact plays, in large part by playing bigger than their size.
As the Raptors started their run late in the third quarter, VanVleet twice boxed out Brook Lopez - a player more than a foot taller than him, and who'd punished Toronto on the glass all night - to close out defensive possessions. Lowry picked up Giannis on a cross-match in transition, and slowed him down long enough for Danny Green to swoop in for a steal. VanVleet dug down into the post to tie up Antetokunmpo and force a jump ball. Both players gleefully mashed bigger dudes with nasty screens.
All of that manifested at the start of the fourth quarter, when Nurse opted to get Leonard a breather and play VanVleet and Lowry together. The guards ran Spain pick-and-rolls at the Bucks over and over, switching up the ball-handling and screening assignments from one set to the next and keeping the Bucks off-balance by varying the design. On one set, VanVleet snaked all the way to the hoop; on another, Lowry slipped the screen and popped to the 3-point line, drew a defender from the corner off a kickout, and immediately found Norman Powell for a three before the next rotation could arrive. Lowry hit Ibaka on a backdoor cut for a dunk. VanVleet hit Siakam with a pocket pass for a floater.
By the time Leonard returned to the game, the Raptors had turned a five-point deficit into a two-point lead. On the ensuing possession, VanVleet danced with Ersan Ilyasova on a switch and drilled a sidestep 3-pointer from the right wing. The Raptors never trailed again.
That's how Raptors president Masai Ujiri described Leonard during the Eastern Conference championship trophy presentation.
And when Lowry was asked in his postgame presser what had changed for the Raptors this year that allowed them to do what they couldn't in the past, he just looked over at Leonard, who was sitting to his right, and burst out laughing.
The argument that Leonard is the best player alive has certainly gained a lot of traction over the course of this postseason, and particularly over the past week or so. Between his three-level shot-making and bulldozing drives, his balance and strength and intuition on defense, his handle, his rebounding ability, and the immense offensive load he carried while taking on the primary defensive assignment against Antetokounmpo, Leonard decisively outplayed the presumptive MVP in the conference finals.
In Game 6, for the second straight contest, there was also one other crucial skill on full display - the one everyone points to as being the lone skill missing from Leonard's game - playmaking. He finished with seven assists, two days after recording a career high with nine. He zipped passes through narrow lanes to bigs who'd slipped behind the defense. He fired pinpoint kickouts to the corners that hit shooters right in the pocket. He could easily have finished with double-digit dimes.
He also grabbed four offensive boards in the second half, including one that saw him beat out both Antetokounmpo and Lopez after a free-throw miss from Siakam to officially ice the game with four seconds to play. He finished with 27 points, 17 rebounds, seven assists, two steals, and two blocks.
"I don't really judge my game like that. I'm more of a team aspect, see what my team is doing. I just want to win. I don't care about being the best player. I want to be the best team." - Kawhi Leonard
Just a little thing called the NBA Finals.
The Raptors will host the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors in Game 1 on Thursday night. The Raptors swept the season series 2-0, including a blowout win at Oracle without Leonard (though their home win came against a Steph Curry-less Warriors squad).
Golden State is heavily favored by Vegas, but Toronto absolutely has the personnel to cause problems in this series. The Raptors can downsize effectively to counter the Warriors' deadliest lineups, they have ball-hounds who can face-guard Curry, and they possess the collective length, strength, and quickness to switch one through five.
The biggest question right now is probably Kevin Durant's health. He's reportedly not expected to play in Game 1, but the Warriors haven't given a timetable or an update on the severity of his calf injury. Golden State can still win without him, and Toronto can still win if he plays. But both of those things will be considerably more difficult than the alternative.