TORONTO — Over six months, Kawhi Leonard endured “82 practices,” then another 11 in the postseason. But there’s no preparation for the individual burden he placed on his broad shoulders on Sunday night against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Leonard launched more field goals through three quarters than either Kobe Bryant or LeBron James have ever attempted in an entire seventh game. He scored 13 of the Toronto Raptors‘ final 15 points in the closing minutes. And in the final 4.2 seconds of a game tied at 90-90, being chased in close pursuit by Ben Simmons then Joel Embiid, he drained the first Game 7 buzzer-beater in NBA history.
“That’s something I never experienced before — Game 7, winning shot,” Leonard said. “It’s a blessing to get to that point and make that shot and feel that moment, and it’s something I can look back on in my career.”
The sequence of images will be iconic in NBA history: The leaning, fading motion that elevated Leonard above Embiid’s outstretched arm, his staggering out of bounds as the shot reached its apex, his squatting in wait as the ball bounced four times around the iron, his letting out a primal scream as it finally fell through, teammates mobbing him as the rim rendered its verdict, Embiid’s incredulous response with his hands atop his head in tragic disbelief.
“It was one of those moments where it’s just like a real-life game winner, Game 7, like count-it-down when you’re back home, and everyone was celebrating like that,” Kyle Lowry said. “It was a pretty awesome moment.”
Real life transcended fantasy on Sunday for a franchise that has been victimized in the postseason by shotmakers of Leonard’s caliber. The Raptors had never before employed one of those talents of their own. Now they do, and they rode him to the Eastern Conference finals, which begins on Wednesday night in Milwaukee.
The matchup between the Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks will feature a fascinating chess match between two teams with exceptionally high basketball intelligence. But it will also be a collision of an unstoppable force and an immovable object. Decide for yourself which is Kawhi Leonard and which is Giannis Antetokounmpo. They rank No. 1 and No. 2 in postseason player efficiency rating, and have undoubtedly been the most consistent, dominant performers in this year’s playoffs.
Leonard’s heroics lifted the Raptors against Orlando and Philadelphia, but the Bucks aren’t a team easily beaten with a constant isolation attack by a single player — even Leonard. He is very likely to encounter a much more aggressive and unpredictable scheme against Milwaukee, which posted the NBA’s top-ranked defense, both in the regular season and playoffs. The Bucks’ peripatetic defense scrambles like crazy, and has no misgivings about pressuring a threat like Leonard with multiple bodies coming from anywhere and everyone on the floor. If that means putting the defense into rotation, so be it, because the Bucks are quick to react and long enough to recover lost ground in an instant.
The Raptors have been fond of saying that every postseason game tells a different story, but one common thread throughout Toronto’s playoff run has been its willingness to pass up open shots along the perimeter. Some of that can be attributed to the inherent unselfishness of guys like Lowry and Marc Gasol.
But against a Bucks defensive scheme in which Brook Lopez typically (though not always) begins each possession in the paint, early open jumpers will be available. Once that Bucks’ defense starts scrambling, an open Raptor can ill-afford to look a gift horse in the mouth when the ball is swung to him, because daylight in the half court is brief before shadows of the Bucks’ defenders descend on open space.
At times, the Raptors have been a dominant defensive squad. They defend the pick-and-roll with as much vigor and efficiency as any team in the league — best in the NBA in both the regular season and playoffs. They have reliable interior defenders, versatile forwards who can match up with size and speed, and guards who apply ball pressure.
But Antetokounmpo and the Bucks are a different breed of offense, as Raptors coach Nick Nurse outlined after Sunday’s win.
“It’s a totally different style than we’ve just been through in our past two series,” Nurse said. “These were set-play teams, pretty methodical on offense. They’re going to come down, look at things, run some post ups, run stuff for their certain guys. That’s not to say Milwaukee doesn’t do that too, but they much rather spread the floor, give it to a guy, put their head down, take it to the rim, and put it in the rim. If you send help, they’re going to fire it out and their going to shoot a ton of 3s.”
More broadly, Milwaukee features an uncommon, almost lethal versatility. Apart from spacing, the Bucks are a team that doesn’t need any specific condition in order to succeed, not unlike the Golden State Warriors of recent seasons. They can win big or small, fast or slow, inside or outside, in the half court or the open floor, with scripted or improvisational play. Theoretically, the Raptors should be able to thrive in many of those environments as well, though they’ve demonstrated some vulnerabilities, particularly on the glass and in contending with size.
For those who believe that a team’s experience matters deep in the NBA postseason, Toronto has its most decisive advantage in the matchup. The Raptors’ roster has played a collective 116 games in the conference finals and beyond, while the Bucks have played in 24 such games — all of them by George Hill as a member of the San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers.
Resumes aside, the Bucks seem to have shaken off any residual altitude sickness — they’re well aware of where they are and what they’re playing for, as are the Raptors. And for sheer individual star power and tactical scheming, this matchup is catnip for both casual fans and NBA junkies.