Improbable play, a raucous crowd and a Kawhi poster: Inside Toronto’s historic run

TORONTO — 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.

The Raptors did enjoy the moment, did stay together and we’re so good they erased a 15-point deficit late in the third quarter in less than four minutes of game time. This explosive spurt was the most consequential stretch of basketball of the NBA postseason, vaulting Toronto to a 100-94 win over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, and the first Finals appearance in Raptors’ franchise history.

“It’s what you play basketball for, for those moments,” Powell said. “The one thing Kawhi really stressed to us was just to enjoy it. Don’t get too out of character, just enjoy the moment and continue to go out there and just lay it on the floor. So it was an amazing feeling just to be able to battle and chip away at it.

“It’s how you make history.”

The 26-3 surge took less than eight minutes of game time, but it was an action-suspense film in three acts. The sequence was befitting of a Raptors’ postseason run that was highlighted by Leonard’s dominance but also complemented in recent days by timely contributions from many of the supporting cast who have endured cold snaps.

The first stage was mounted with just over two minutes remaining in the third quarter, and the Raptors trailing 76-61 — it was an exhibition of rugged dominance by Leonard. Toronto ripped off the final 10 points of the half, eight of them scored by Leonard, the other assisted by him: a hook shot from close range by Serge Ibaka.

These were not Leonard’s most artful eight points on the night — an awkward step-through leaner in traffic, a 21-foot jumper moving left off a pick-and-roll and four free throws sprinkled in. Yet it was the sort of heavy manufacturing the Raptors desperately needed to stay in shouting distance of Milwaukee as the game entered the fourth quarter. During that span, Leonard also corralled four defensive rebounds off Raptors misses, and collected one of his own free-throw misses as well. With Leonard’s individual exploits, a 15-point deficit was now cut to five headed into the fourth.

“He’s been here before,” Raptors guard and longtime Leonard teammate Danny Green said. “He’s very comfortable in those situations. When the bright lights get brighter, his game rises and he knows how important it is. He makes the big plays, whether it’s getting shots or getting rebounds.”

Leonard was scheduled for a short blow to start the fourth quarter, which presented the Raptors with one of their toughest assignments of the postseason: maintain their momentum without the player who propelled it. With Kyle Lowry returning to the lineup with Powell, Ibaka, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet, the Raptors ignited the most improbable three and-a-half minutes of their postseason. It started with VanVleet, who slithered into the lane off a nice stack play, cutting the lead to three points.

“When [Leonard] is on the floor we all defer a little bit to whatever he wants to do,” VanVleet said. “So you have to take a little more initiative with playmaking.”

Ice cold for much of the playoffs, VanVleet’s re-emergence over the past week — a stretch that coincided with the birth of his first child — had been a bellwether of the Raptors’ reversal in the conference finals. Those struggles were one reason why roster depth seemed to favor Milwaukee dramatically in the series. But the elevated play of VanVleet and Powell in recent days had flipped the script for Toronto, with the big run in Game 6 another display. With Lowry, a teammate he regards as a mentor and older brother, VanVleet took the controls of the potentially fateful six possessions of the season, without Leonard.

The Raptors scored on four of those possessions without Leonard to take the lead. As has often been the case when the Raptors are on their game but Leonard isn’t on the floor, the ball popped for the Raptors. VanVleet and Siakam attacked Milwaukee with a pick-and-roll, with Lowry moving into the space vacated by VanVleet on the perimeter. As soon as the kickout hit Lowry, he quickly swung a pass to Powell, who was open in the corner, as the ball beat the Bucks’ rotation.

The Raptors tied the game the next trip down when Lowry slung a beautiful pass to Ibaka, who snuck behind a collapsing Milwaukee defense. Then, the Raptors snatched their first lead of the game since the opening minutes with another VanVleet-Siakam pick-and-roll that yielded Siakam a silky floater.

“You get in the game, you want the score to go the right way,” VanVleet said. “As a player, you’re conscious of that — not to the point that it affects decisions, but you want to feel the momentum of the game change. To be able to get ourselves going and get ourselves some offensive momentum was big.”

As Leonard checked back into the game, the score was going the right way — a five-point deficit at the start of the quarter had transformed into a 2-point lead. Leonard had taken his rest, and with his return, the Raptors sustained their rhythm to the delight of a raucous Scotiabank Arena crowd. Toronto scored seven of the game’s next nine points, including a step-back 3-pointer courtesy of VanVleet, and the tour de force — an emphatic dunk by a trailing Leonard on the break, left for him by a crafty underhanded shuttle pass from Lowry.

“It was a momentum kind of capper,” said Lowry. “We kind of were on a run, and why not feed the big dog. Let the big dog eat. I’m always going to look for the guy that I know can finish with the best of them. That’s what he did.”

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 3-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.

“Our communication, scheme, switching, blitzing, our rotations, contesting shots, all those things have been growing here since the start of the playoffs,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “The other thing is there are some moments, like stretches — we call them consecutive stops — and there are some stretches where it’s darned hard to complete a pass against us. That wears into a team after a while when you’re up into them and you’re denying and everybody is just that connected and playing that hard.”

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.

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