The Toronto Raptors are going to the NBA final. Stop for a minute and hold that sentence in your hand, say it out loud, scream it in the street, whatever feels right. After trailing for most of the game, the Raptors defeated the Milwaukee Bucks 100-94 in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final for their fourth straight win in the series, so say it again: the Toronto Raptors are going to the NBA final, where they will meet the Golden State Warriors. The champs.
It doesn’t feel real; it has come in an endless, game-by-game rush. But it’s here. It was a hard climb, but this team doesn’t often roll; it grinds. Milwaukee was up 15 points in the second quarter, and 15 late in the third. Toronto ripped off a hellacious run to go up eight with 6:46 left, and it looked like they had broken Milwaukee, but the Bucks came back.
But this Raptors team has come through in the toughest games again, and again, and again. Kawhi Leonard bounced in a three from the corner, on a Kyle Lowry pass. Kawhi was blocked at the rim by Giannis Antetokounmpo, which was fair: Kawhi had dunked over him minutes earlier. But Pascal Siakam dropped in the offensive rebound and the Raptors were up five with 1:14 left. With 29.6 to go, it was three, and Raptors ball.
And with a chance to end it, Kawhi trusted the pass. He hit Siakam; Siakam missed but got his own rebound, and after a review to make sure the ball hit the rim the Raptors just had to inbound the ball, and hit free throws. Siakam made one, Kawhi seized one last offensive rebound, and when the buzzer sounded the place went nuts, just nuts. The city deserves this; Canada’s basketball fans deserve it. This team is tough as hell, boy. You can believe.
Kawhi finished with 27 points, 17 rebounds and seven assists; Kyle Lowry had 17 points, eight assists and five rebounds. And again, they needed everyone.
It was such a long climb. The defence wasn’t in sync, not quite, and the Bucks were hitting threes. Marc Gasol wasn’t shooting; Kawhi wasn’t hot; Danny Green remained lost down a well. His four missed threes in the first half were all good looks, and not one of them was close. They were prayers thrown into an uncaring universe, and none had a chance of being granted from the time they left his hand.
The Bucks opened a lead that stretched to 15 in the second quarter, and the Raptors were just off: jumping at shot fakes, but the wrong ones; overpassing on offence, or stagnating. The Bucks didn’t get here by accident: they’re a 60-win team for a reason.
So Toronto went back to the fundamentals: They defended like demons, and were within seven at halftime. The Raptors were giving more, and it showed.
“Eighty-five per cent of it,” said Raptors coach Nick Nurse before the game, when asked how much of a game like this was sheer effort. “I mean … we end up showing all these clips and all these coverages and all these matchups and all these things and blah, blah, blah. Almost at the end of it every time, I say, ‘This is about 15 per cent 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? I can keep going on and on, but that’s where the 85 per cent comes from. I think for our team, it’s that way.”
It was the way. Late in the third Toronto was running out of time, so Kawhi went up a notch, creating a 10-0 run out of what seemed like thin, hard-to-breathe air; his will is a living thing, sometimes, and the sight of him crashing through bodies to grab his own offensive rebound on a missed free throw was like a rhino smashing through the underbrush. Toronto was down five, with a quarter to go.
And with Kawhi sitting, the Raptors kept pushing; Lowry was quietly excellent, and Fred VanVleet kept on the short roll of a lifetime. They rolled off a 9-2 run without Kawhi, and the building was an ocean of noise, a howling mob. Kawhi came back, and Milwaukee’s halfcourt offence looked desperate, panicked, like a high school team in a too-hostile gym. When Kawhi dunked over Giannis on a fast break to open an 87-79 lead like he wanted to rip someone’s heart out, it looked like the Raptors had hit top gear. It capped a 16-5 run in the fourth.
The Bucks wouldn’t go away, because they’re great. It was hard. But then, it should be.
The Toronto Raptors are in the NBA final. They will be underdogs; they will be playing true champions, the best. They will have to worry about Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, about how Draymond Green plays like he’s got a great steam engine in his chest. They will have to deal with the return of DeMarcus Cousins, and presumably, eventually, the return of Kevin Durant.
But the final will start here on Thursday night, in a global city in front of the world, and the Raptors will have a chance. You can shout it out your window, because it’s true.
Bruce Arthur is a Toronto-based sports columnist. Follow him on Twitter: @bruce_arthur