'Level' Kawhi puts Raptors on cusp of first Finals


MILWAUKEE -- In a quiet moment after the Toronto Raptors pulled off a 105-99 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 5 of the Eastern Conference finals to take a 3-2 lead in this best-of-seven series and move within one win of the franchise's first trip to the NBA Finals, Raptors coach Nick Nurse was asked what allowed his team to turn this series around from an initial 2-0 deficit.
"This isn't the sexy answer, but from the first day of training camp we've been saying we're going to stay level," Nurse told ESPN. "A s---ty preseason game is just gonna get written off. A great win at Golden State, same thing. A terrible game in San Antonio, 'Let's bounce back.'
"And we've done it all year. We've kept it even-keeled. Kawhi [Leonard] has helped that. Kyle [Lowry] has been so much less emotional and a great leader. Marc [Gasol], even Serge [Ibaka], those older guys, when things have gone s---ty, it's not questioning guys, it's 'Let's figure it out.' I think it was the same today."
It's hard to argue with Nurse's assessment -- especially given that, five minutes into the first quarter, the Raptors found themselves down 18-4 at Fiserv Forum, with Giannis Antetokounmpo dunking everywhere, and the roof of the building feeling as if it might come off.
At that moment, it felt as if the game could quickly turn into another outcome like Game 2, when Milwaukee ran Toronto out of the building. Instead, the Raptors slowly began chipping away, and eventually got themselves back into it.
Once the Raptors did, that gave Leonard the chance to carry them home. And, for the latest time in these playoffs, Leonard did exactly that, scoring 15 of his game-high 35 points in the final quarter to push the Raptors over the top, and allow the road team to win a game for the first time in this series.
"The game he played tonight," Lowry said of Leonard, who also had seven rebounds and nine assists, "was a pretty good game.
"It's a pretty good game on the big stage, and on the road.
"Superstar. Superstar."
It was Leonard's back-to-back 3-pointers with 8:30 and 7:57 left in the fourth quarter that gave Toronto an 85-81 lead. Those were two of the 18 3's the Raptors made while attempting 43 of them -- typically the kind of number the Bucks like to shoot, and what wound up being two more shots than the Raptors attempted inside the arc all night.
And, even more than his shotmaking, it was Leonard's ability to guard Antetokounmpo -- not to mention his even-keeled demeanor -- that has shifted the series in Toronto's favor.
"We have one of the least emotional guys in Kawhi Leonard, but he's emotional when he needs to be," Lowry told ESPN. "We've all kind of just ... when our superstar is a guy who stays [level] ... he's our guy, he's our superstar.
"He never gets too up, he never gets too down, he misses games, he didn't play games. And when he didn't play, we went about our business. When he did play, we went about our business. And we just have to go out there and play."
Part of the reason why Leonard was able to carry the Raptors home was because Fred VanVleet, for a second straight game, stepped up. VanVleet, who had his second child the day before Game 4, put up 21 points off the bench, going 7-for-13 from the field -- including 7-for-9 from 3-point range.
He now has gone from shooting 7-for-44 overall and 3-for-25 from 3-point range over a 10-game span from the start of the Eastern Conference semifinals against the Philadelphia 76ers through Game 3 of this series to going 12-for-19 overall and 10-for-12 from 3-point range over the past two games.
"I guess," VanVleet said with a smile, when asked if having his child had changed things. "Zero sleep, have a lot of babies and go out there and let loose.
"[You] keep just trusting the work, and trusting your craft, and knowing that, at some point, they're going to drop."
That they started dropping now has been exactly what the Raptors needed -- though it also came as no surprise to Lowry, VanVleet's close friend.
"We always say 'next man up,' and it's been like that all year," Lowry told ESPN. "Guys have done an unbelievable job preaching next man up and tonight was Freddy's night.
"I never felt bad for him. I expect nothing but the best from him, and I expect him to keep doing that."
So much about this Toronto team is new. Nurse is a first-year head coach; Leonard, Danny Green and Gasol all arrived with the Raptors via trade within the past nine months. But the Raptors have a battle-tested group full of players who have been in these types of moments before.
It's that experience that has helped Toronto stay even-keeled through a season spent with Lowry and Leonard shuttling in and out of the lineup, with trades and injuries keeping Toronto from having its full roster more than a handful of times.
"It certainly helps, I think," Nurse told ESPN. "I think these guys have played in these games and it certainly helps, but what I'm noticing is in between games. I think the guys are really smart about preparing.
"Everybody is trying to tell them they are tired, and they're just not buying it. And they're just like, 'OK, we're winning. We have to go to work.'
"This is a hell of a team. We have to play our asses off to beat them."
The Raptors have done so three straight times -- something that hadn't happened to the Bucks all season. If Toronto can do it a fourth straight time back home Saturday night, it will be in the NBA Finals.