Publish Date: 05/27/2019
Fact checked by: Mike Goodpaster
Following Saturday night’s victory over Milwaukee, their fourth consecutive victory in the series, the Toronto Raptors punched their ticket to the NBA finals, marking their first finals appearance as a franchise.
Who would have expected to read those words just a couple weeks ago?
Following game two, Toronto found themselves in a quite a hole, staring at a 2-0 deficit after dropping both games by a combined 30 points. Milwaukee star Giannis Antetokounmpo was getting exactly what he wanted on the Toronto defense, and his supporting cast provided plenty of help. In game one it was the stellar play of Brook Lopez, who recorded a double-double with 29 points and 11 rebounds to help Milwaukee record their first win of the series. In game two, it was the outstanding bench play for the Bucks, which combined for 52 points, mainly from the trio of Ersan Ilyasova, George Hill, and Malcolm Brogdon. The Bucks seemingly had too many weapons for the Raptors to handle, and many assumed the series was all but over.
Yet, Toronto wasn’t ready to lie down.
It started in game 3, when Toronto made the change to use Kawhi Leonard as the main defender on Antetokounmpo, freeing up Pascal Siakam to play a bigger role on the offensive end. Leonard’s spectacular defense limited Antetokounmpo as much as one could realistically expect, and Siakam’s 25 points helped Toronto to secure their first win of the series. And from that point on, it was a similar story.
Leonard firmly established himself as the best player on the floor, averaging 29.8 points, 9.5 rebounds, and 6 assists during the series along with playing arguably the best defense Antetokounmpo has seen all season long. Leonard’s length and athleticism made Antetokounmpo work for every point, and his production fell noticeably from the first two games.
However, one of the most important developments for the Raptors as the series progressed, was the production of Leonard’s supporting cast, which had struggled mightily at times early in the season. Whether it was Marc Gasol, Norman Powell, Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, or Fred VanVleet, Leonard’s supporting cast began to rise to the occasion and completely changed the dynamics of the series.
VanVleet in particular deserves his fair share of praise for his contributions down the stretch of the series. His 21 points off the bench in game 5, including an incredible 7-of-9 shooting from behind the arc, helped put Toronto in position to close out this series at home in game 6. VanVleet delivered again in game 6 to put the series away, recording 14 points in another impressive shooting display. This time he went 4-of-5 from behind the arc, thus helping Toronto earn their first ever finals appearance.
Now the Raptors will have to turn their attention to the Golden State Warriors, who will be making their fifth consecutive finals appearance after sweeping the Portland Trail Blazers in the Western Conference Finals. The Raptors swept the Warriors during the regular season, but Golden State has taken their play to another level in the post-season, and it remains to be seen whether Toronto will be capable of matching their level of play. The finals will tip-off on Thursday, March 30th, when the Raptors host the Warriors for game one of the series.