TORONTO - Imagine a Toronto Raptors team that isn’t wilting in the biggest of moments in the postseason, and instead has answered the call in the face of adversity every single time. Imagine a Raptors team that has the best player in a playoff series that includes potential MVP and Defensive Player of the Year candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo. Imagine that best player, hobbling on one leg, two nights after playing a career-high 52 minutes, and still being the best defensive player on the floor.
Raptors fans don’t have to imagine any longer. That team is here, and it’s two wins away from advancing to the NBA Finals for the first time in franchise history. In previous seasons, even when Toronto has won in the playoffs, it has felt more like it simply staved off losing. There wasn’t a lot of joy, just a feeling of having survived, and inevitably the hopes of a championship run were extinguished by teams more equipped for the postseason grind.
Past playoff teams have been exposed on this stage. The easy narrative has always been to claim that Toronto was capable of beating anybody, except LeBron James, but that would have been to ignore the fact the Raptors were simply not worthy of being tabbed as a legitimate contender, and that whether it was James, or someone else, it was a team that would eventually be exposed against the elite.
These Raptors are telling a new story. They lost at home to open the first round against Orlando—because that is the annual rite of passage for all Raptors playoff teams—and rebounded to win the next four games. They trailed 2-1 on the road against the Sixers, and gutted out a win to save their season. They dropped the first two games in Milwaukee to open the conference finals, and managed to find a way to tie the series even with a double-overtime game and Leonard hobbling for most of Game 4.
Nick Nurse believes his team is capable of finishing off this series, even if it doesn’t have home-court advantage in what is now a best-of-three.
“If we play with the effort we put in the last two games and three out of the four games, then we’re going to have a really good chance to win,” Nurse said during a conference call on Wednesday.
Toronto’s defence has been dominant for most of this playoff run. Antetokounmpo is still putting up numbers in this series, but his impact has been limited by Leonard and a slew of help defenders. The Bucks were one of the best offensive teams in the league this season. In this series, they’ve been reduced to a below-average team in the half court.
On offence, the Raptors got a complete performance from the entire roster in Tuesday’s Game 4 win. Six players scored in double digits, including Serge Ibaka, Norman Powell and Fred VanVleet off the bench. Powell and VanVleet combined to score 31 points in Game 4 after combining to score 35 points in the entire seven-game series against the Sixers.
“There's a lot of opportunity offensively for everybody that steps on the floor,” Nurse said. “A lot of those are created by Kawhi and Pascal. I think it’s great when they can feel confident enough to step into their shots and take them, and when they go in, it feeds our energy on the defensive end. It seems we’re at our best when we’re getting contributions from a lot of people.”
Now, they’ll take the show back on the road, with a chance to take control of the series in Milwaukee on Thursday. As the spotlight has gotten bigger with each round, the Raptors have found a more meaningful response to every single obstacle that has been thrown their way in the postseason. Two victories away from the Finals, we’ll see if this team has a few more resilient wins left in them.
News and notes:
On the defensive: Before Game 4, Nick Nurse was asked to describe the qualities that makes Leonard such a terrifying defender. “He wants to stop you,” Nurse said, “and that goes a long way.” Antetokounmpo is shooting 44.5 percent from the field in this series — well below his 57.8 percent field goal percentage in the regular season. On Wednesday, Leonard was named to the NBA All-Defensive second team, becoming the first player in Raptors franchise history to make it.
Fun guy: Aside from saving the Raptors’ season with a magnificent performance playing 52 minutes in Game 3 and gutting it out in Game 4 despite being clearly bothered by a leg injury, Leonard has also continued to cement his reputation as a clear-cut fun guy in this series. After falling behind 2-0 in the series, he still had the knack to rip off a “We’re going back to Toronto for Game 3” joke when a reporter asked where the team would go from here (and laughing at his own joke as he told it!). Last night, Leonard said hello in Mandarin during a post-game interview, and in his locker room scrum, talked about the confidence of the shooters on the team, and inadvertently dropped a life lesson, saying: “People are confident in their shots, it just doesn’t go in sometimes.” What a (fun) guy.
Never change Kawhi, never change 😂 pic.twitter.com/BdLS3zL9QT— Yahoo Sports Canada (@YahooCASports) May 22, 2019
OG: There’s still no timeline for OG Anunoby’s return. Nurse said on Wednesday he’s getting more active each day, but still not participating in any drills that require contact. “He’s still a ways away from being able to take hits and contact in the areas he needs to test out,” Nurse said. At this point, we can rule Anunoby out for the remainder of this series, with an outside chance he makes a return during the Finals, should the Raptors make it that far.
Courtside drama: A storyline coming out of Game 4 has plenty of Bucks fans taking issue with Drake’s courtside antics, including how he interacts with opposing players. Drake has been talking a lot of trash to Antetokounmpo and the Bucks bench throughout this series. Nurse said on Wednesday that he doesn’t find it to be a distraction. In fact, he didn’t even notice the shoulder rub Drake gave him in the fourth quarter. “I didn’t even know I got the shoulder rub last night until someone showed me the picture of it today,” Nurse said. “I didn’t even feel it.”
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