Toronto Raptors make NBA Finals for the first time
Let it sink in; the Toronto Raptors will play in the NBA Finals for the very first time. It has been a Canadian basketball success story 24 years in the making.
Kawhi Leonard was once again the star. He recorded 27 points and hauled down a game-high 17 rebounds to lead the Raptors to a thrilling 100-94 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks that clinched the Eastern Conference finals series 4-2.
Meanwhile, Kyle Lowry had 17 points and eight assists. This despite undoubtedly playing through the pain barrier with his thumb injury. And he grabbed the game ball after the final buzzer sounded on what was Toronto’s biggest comeback of this post-season.
Also, Pascal Siakam scored 18 points, and Fred VanVleet finished with 14.
However, the road doesn’t get any easier for the Raptors. As the defending NBA champions, Golden State Warriors await after dispatching the Portland Trail Blazers in four games in the western final almost seven days ago. The Finals tip off in Toronto on Thursday evening.
Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 21 points and added 11 boards. Meanwhile, Brook Lopez had 18.
Toronto starting nervously and got off to a shaky start; which was reminiscent of Game Five. They gave up a 17-2 Bucks run that straddled the first and second quarters to trail by 15 points early in the first half.
However, the Raptors closed the third quarter with a 10-0 run capped by three Leonard free throws that cut the Milwaukee advantage to 76-71 with one quarter remaining.
Toronto continued to ride a massive wave of momentum, with a 26-3 run punctuated by a massive Leonard dunk from a hand-off from Lowry with 6:46 to play prompting a cheer from the crowd that rocked Scotiabank Arena and the likes of which haven’t been heard for many years. The fans in attendance didn’t sit down again until the game’s final buzzer blew. It was a pulsating occasion.
However, the Bucks pulled to within a point with over five minutes remaining. But three-pointers by Marc Gasol and Leonard had Toronto up by five with just over three minutes to play.
Leonard, who missed all but nine games last season with San Antonio because of a serious quadriceps injury, was breathing heavily. He had his hands on knees, after missing a dunk that Siakam tipped in with two minutes to play.
A pair of free throws from Lopez made it a three-point game with 30 seconds to play. Before Siakam was fouled with seven seconds left. The Cameroon big man sank one. Following that, Leonard was fouled with 3.9 seconds left, and with the crowd chanting “M-V-P!” Toronto’s superstar sank both.
Game over. Lowry could barely contain his emotions as the final seconds ticked down.
The Raptors were making just their second Eastern Conference finals appearance in franchise history. Furthermore, it was their first since they stole two games off LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers before being ousted in six games in 2016.
Raptors president Masai Ujiri rebuilt this team with the lofty goal of an NBA championship. He traded the much-loved DeMar DeRozan for Leonard in the off-season and then swapping Jonas Valanciunas for Gasol on February’s trade deadline.
If fans complained then, they aren’t now. It could be a history-making couple of weeks to come. But, it won’t be easy. The Warriors have won the last four NBA Finals. However, it’s unlikely that they have come up against a team that is as resurgent as the Toronto Raptors at present.