TORONTO – With 3:21 left in the second overtime of Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals, it felt like an entire franchise’s hopes and dreams hung in the balance. Scotiabank Arena was going as nuts as it had for much of the past three hours, yet you could feel a palpable fear that hung in the air after nearly a quarter century of almost-theres and not-quites. So much history said that this moment would be the moment things would go badly for the Toronto Raptors. When those hopes are highest is always when they are dashed in the most painful of ways.
With the Raptors up one – with Kyle Lowry and Norman Powell and Giannis Antetokounmpo already having fouled out – Marc Gasol switched onto Milwaukee Bucks‘ point guard Eric Bledsoe. Bledsoe backed up to the 3-point arc, then darted to his left. He dribbled into the lane, spun around recklessly … and lost the ball. It bounced off the hands of Danny Green, and right into the monstrous hands of Kawhi Leonard. Kawhi has been everything to the Raptors this postseason. In the semifinal series against the Sixers, Kawhi had scored the most points in a seven-game series since Michael Jordan in 1993, and the Raptors needed every bit of it. Here he was again, the man in the center of one of the biggest moments in franchise history.
Kawhi sprinted headlong past center court. Only a backpedaling Nikola Mirotic stood between Kawhi and the rim. Kawhi lifted off a foot inside the free-throw line, switching the ball from right hand to left mid-stride. Mirotic thought about contesting, and then decided against it. Flying through the air, Kawhi dunked the ball with his left hand, and the Toronto crowd – which had alternated between delirium and fatalism over the past hour – absolutely lost their minds.
He got up limping and holding his leg. He was playing hurt for much of the game, but you didn’t hear a peep from Kawhi. He just knew he needed to put his team – his franchise – on his back, which he did in the Raptors’ 118-112 double-overtime victory.
“It’s amazing, what he’s been doing for us all year, especially in the postseason,” Raptors guard Norman Powell said. “He’s a guy that all he wants to do is win. He doesn’t care about accolades, the points, as long as he’s out there helping his team win. That’s good for us. We feed off of that. He’s a great leader for us. To be able to go out there and play 52 minutes and lead the team with his voice in the timeouts, telling us to stay calm, stay in the moment, not get anxious when they go on runs, it’s amazing to have a guy like that on the team.”
Kawhi cannot do this on his own, even if it seemed through vast stretches of Game 3, busting through triple-teams and taking the toughest defensive assignments, he needed to. Kawhi was a superhero on Sunday night: A game-high 36 points in a game-high 52 minutes – check that: a career-high 52 minutes – getting to the line 13 times (and making 12 of them) while playing his typically elite defense.
Kawhi was Batman, but the Raptors can only beat the Bucks when the rest of the team plays like his Robins. That’s what the Raptors were on Sunday night, something we’ve only seen in spurts during this postseason: A complete basketball team. Powell came off the bench for a crucial 19 points. Pascal Siakam played his best game in weeks, scoring 25 points and getting an enormous block on Brook Lopez in overtime. Danny Green and Fred VanVleet couldn’t buy a shot, but shooters shoot, and both of them made clutch 3s in overtime.
The key difference from a Raptors team that got blown out in Game 2 and a team that played a consistent Game 3 was a rejuvenated Marc Gasol. Gasol blamed himself for the Game 2 loss. In Game 3, though, he was the exact opposite, playing aggressive basketball from the jump and not passing up shots – as his two 3s in the first few minutes of the game indicated. If Gasol set a bad tone in Game 2, he set a perfect tone in Game 3, ending with 16 points (on 4-of-8 3-point shooting), grabbing 12 rebounds and blocking five shots.
“Offense is about creating space,” coach Nick Nurse said. “If there’s certain areas of the floor that are crowded, you gotta move to the free areas. With Lopez in the paint a lot, you gotta move to the open space and take advantage of it. Our mentality was better tonight. Our feet were ready, our hands were ready, and our mentality was ready to pull the trigger.”
But in the end, of course, it came down to which superstar was better: Giannis, or Kawhi. By the time of Kawhi’s runout dunk in the second overtime, Giannis had already fouled out. The Raptors had played him physically all night – Bucks fans might say Giannis got a very unfriendly whistle – and Giannis was held to only 12 points and seven assists. It was no surprise to his teammates when, despite his huge minute load, Kawhi was still able to rise up from near the free-throw line and throw down the momentum-shifting dunk.
“That’s what he does,” Danny Green told CBS Sports after the game. “You get that ball in his area, he’s gonna get it. Even though he wasn’t 100 percent tonight, he still pushed through.”
This is what the Raptors played for all season long: To have a chance at making the NBA Finals, and have a chance to convince Kawhi to stick around. It was for moments like this that Kawhi’s load was managed all season, as he played in only 60 regular-season games. It was for moments like this why the Raptors traded for Gasol at the trade deadline: To give Kawhi one more veteran Robin at his side. It was why general manager Masai Ujiri went all in on the Finals MVP in a franchise-altering trade.
“(Kawhi’s) defense was probably the biggest key to the game,” Nurse said. “Not only did he just play good but he made some huge plays with some steals and rip-aways and breakaways. Offense was hard to come by for both teams for a while. Any time you can get a steal and breakout, that’s a huge momentum play.”
“You guys have heard his famous line that (Kawhi) said: That these first 82 games are just practice.”
It’s no longer practice. It’s the playoffs. And that has always been when Kawhi Leonard matters most.