TORONTO — Over six months, Kawhi Leonardendured "82 practices," then another 11 in thepostseason. But there's no preparation for theindividual burden he placed on his broad shouldersSunday night against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Leonard launched more field goals through threequarters than either Kobe Bryant or LeBron Jameshave ever attempted in an entire seventh game. Hescored 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 JoelEmbiid, 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 ablessing to get to that point and make that shot and feel that moment, and it's something Ican look back on in my career."
The sequence of images will be iconic in NBA history: the leaning, fading motion that elevatedLeonard above Embiid's outstretched arm, his staggering out of bounds as the shot reached itsapex, his squatting in wait as the ball bounced four times around the iron, his letting out aprimal scream as it finally fell through, teammates mobbing him as the rim rendered itsverdict, 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 Lowrysaid. "It wasa pretty awesome moment."
Real life transcended fantasy on Sunday for a franchise that has been victimized in thepostseason by shotmakers of Leonard's caliber. The Raptors had never before employed one ofthose talents of their own. Now they do, and they rode him to the Eastern Conference finals, which begins Wednesday night in Milwaukee.
The matchup between the Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks will feature a fascinating chess matchbetween two teams with exceptionally high basketball intelligence. But it will also be acollision of an unstoppable force and an immovable object. Decide for yourself which is KawhiLeonard and which is Giannis Antetokounmpo. They rank No. 1 and No. 2 in postseason playerefficiency rating, and have undoubtedly been the most consistent, dominant performers inthis year's playoffs.
Leonard's heroics lifted the Raptors against Orlando and Philadelphia, but the Bucks aren't ateam easily beaten with a constant isolation attack by a single player — even Leonard. He isvery likely to encounter a much more aggressive and unpredictable scheme againstMilwaukee, which posted the NBA's top-ranked defense, both in the regular season andplayoffs. The Bucks' peripatetic defense scrambles like crazy, and has no misgivings aboutpressuring a threat like Leonard with multiple bodies coming from anywhere and everyone onthe floor. If that means putting the defense into rotation, so be it, because the Bucks arequick 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, butone common thread throughout Toronto's playoff run has been its willingness to pass upopen shots along the perimeter. Some of that can be attributed to the inherent unselfishnessof players such as 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 whenthe ball is swung to him, because daylight in the half court is brief before shadows of the Bucks'defenders descend on open space.
But Antetokounmpo and the Bucks are a different breed of offense, as Raptors coach NickNurse 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, lookat things, run some post-ups, run stuff for their certain guys. That's not to say Milwaukeedoesn't do that too, but they much rather spread the floor, give it to a guy, put their headdown, take it to the rim, and put it in the rim. If you send help, they're going to fire it out andthey're going to shoot a ton of 3s."
More broadly, Milwaukee features an uncommon, almost lethal versatility. Apart fromspacing, the Bucks are a team that doesn't need any specific condition to succeed, not unlikethe Golden State Warriors of recent seasons. They can win big or small, fast or slow, inside oroutside, 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'vedemonstrated 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, Torontohas its most decisive advantage in the matchup. The Raptors' roster has played a collective116 games in the conference finals and beyond, and 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'rewell aware of where they are and what they're playing for, as are the Raptors. And for sheerindividual star power and tactical scheming, this matchup is catnip for both casual fans andNBA junkies.
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