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Kawhi trade pays off with Raptors’ Finals berth

TORONTO — After the confetti fell on the Raptors, fresh off of their 100-94 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals Saturday night that sent Toronto to the NBA Finals for the first time in history, president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri was asked on TNT’s telecast how the trade for Kawhi Leonard turned out.

“He’s the best player in the league,” Ujiri said, as the sellout crowd inside Scotiabank Arena — all 20,478 of whom were still in their seats — roared in approval.

“And we’re happy he’s in Toronto.”

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 pick — for the superstar forward, plus Danny Green. After the Raptors had seen their season end three straight seasons at the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, Ujiri was determined for things to be different.

And, thanks to Leonard, they are.

“I don’t really judge my game like that,” Leonard said, when asked about Ujiri’s comments. “I’m more of a team aspect, see what my team is doing [guy]. I just want to win. I don’t care about being the best player. I want to be the best team. I’ve always said that.

“Before the season, when we made the trade, Masai felt that way about me. He told me how he felt, and why he made the trade.

“It’s turning out well now. We’re in the Finals, and we’re not done yet.”

It looked as if this would be a very different outcome late in the third quarter, when Toronto was trailing 76-61 and the crowd was all but silent. But then the Raptors ripped off a 26-3 run over the next eight minutes of game action — capped by a massive Leonard dunk following a steal by Kyle Lowry with 6:46 left, making the score 87-79.

“It was a kind of momentum capper,” said Lowry, who finished with 17 points, 5 rebounds and 8 assists. “We kind of were on a run, and why not feed the big dog? Let the big dog eat.”

At the time, it felt like the beginning of a victory lap for the Raptors — but that feeling was short-lived. Milwaukee immediately responded with a 7-0 run over the next 90 seconds to pull back to within one, setting up a tense final few minutes.

Throughout it all, though, Toronto never trailed again. A beautiful driving Lowry layup pushed Toronto’s lead back to three, and then back-to-back 3-pointers by Marc Gasol and Leonard gave the Raptors a 95-90 lead with 3:04 left.

While the final few minutes were frenetic, Milwaukee never had another chance at a tying shot.

Eventually, the game ended with Leonard — who else could it be? — knocking down a pair of free throws with 3.9 seconds left after corralling a free throw miss by Pascal Siakam to give the Raptors the final margin of victory, and finally set the celebrations in motion both inside Scotiabank Arena and among the tens of thousands of fans congregated outside of it in Jurassic Park.

Even Drake, who was in his customary courtside seat wearing a hoodie with “Kawhi Me A River” written on the back, was in on the fun.

“I think first of all, to accomplish what we’ve done, winning the Eastern Conference, you’ve got to really truly believe you can do it,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “That was kind of my message from day one of training camp: We’ve got a good team here, we’ve got good players, we’ve got depth, we’ve got a lot of things. We’ve got to understand that there are a lot of good teams in the East, but we’re right up there. I think that belief started things, and I think we always kind of thought that. So that’s the starting point.

“And Kawhi is like — I don’t know how many more good things I can say about him. He’s just so good. And again, I’m seeing a level of competitive greatness out of him. It’s just his willing us to win and him grabbing those rebounds and willing those shots in almost it seems like, and going down and locking up somebody and taking the ball from them. It’s what it is; it’s great competitive desire.”

It was only a week ago the Raptors found themselves down 0-2 in this series, and being counted out by many before even playing a single game on their home court. But the thing that made this Raptors team different than previous iterations was Leonard.

For months, there have been skeptics regarding Toronto’s decisions to monitor Leonard’s minutes so closely this season — to the point where “load management” officially entered the NBA lexicon. There were doubters about the need to make such a move for a player few ever gave the Raptors a chance of keeping beyond this season. Throughout these playoffs, though, Leonard has delivered time and again — most notably with his incredible shot to win the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Philadelphia 76ers, one that bounced on the rim four times before falling through the net.

Saturday night’s performance didn’t quite require those heroics. But Leonard provided more than enough to lift the Raptors to the NBA Finals, and to make Ujiri’s declaration to the crowd afterward far from a foolhardy one.

“It’s great,” Leonard said of returning to the NBA Finals for the first time since winning Finals MVP with the Spurs in 2014. “I worked so hard to get to this point with the season I had last year, just always betting on myself and knowing what I feel and what’s right for me. I ended up coming here with a great group of guys, a lot of talent. And I just strived with them every day.

“I just kind of bought into their system. Kyle helped me a lot with my transition, on the court and off the court, asking him questions, him just pushing me on the floor as well and letting me know what to do in situations when he calls plays. All that hard work just put together.

“Now we’re here, and it’s exciting.”

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