TORONTO - The Toronto Raptors made history the hard way Saturday night, reaching the NBA Finals for the first time after rallying past the Milwaukee Bucks 100-94 in Game 6.
Trailing by 15 points with 2:18 remaining in the third quarter, the Raptors scored the final 10 points of the frame. Then, with Kawhi Leonard on the bench for the first 3:30 of the fourth quarter, they took a two-point lead.
Leonard returned, and the game was in good hands. He finished with 27 points — seven in the fourth quarter — a career-best 17 rebounds and seven assists.
“Just one possession at a time,” Leonard said, describing the comeback. “We kept fighting the whole game.”
The Raptors, who lost the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals before winning four straight, will open the NBA Finals at home on Thursday night against the Golden State Warriors.
“It’s still surreal to me right now,” Leonard said. “But this is what we’ve been striving for all season. It’s not over yet.”
Pascal Siakam added 18 points, Kyle Lowry had 17 and Fred VanVleet scored 14 for the Raptors.
“Kawhi stays level-headed all the time,” Lowry said. “He brought that pedigree with him.”
“He inspired us tonight with monster rebounds,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse added. “It wasn’t going well for us, it was kind of a frustrating night. ... But we kept playing.”
Lowry has been through many playoff failures in seven years with the Raptors.
“It means a lot to me,” Lowry said. “We beat a really good team in Milwaukee. But I’m not satisfied yet. Our goal is to win the NBA championship.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo had 21 points and 11 rebounds for the Bucks, who had the NBA’s best record (60-22) during the regular season. Brook Lopez added 18 points with nine rebounds and three blocks, Khris Middleton had 14 points, Ersan Ilyasova 13, and Malcolm Brogdon and George Hill 10 each.
“This hurts,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. “But what they did in the playoffs tonight against a really good Toronto Raptors team, and to get to the Eastern Conference finals, the regular season, a special season for us. We feel like we’re just getting started.”
“We have to get better as a team and get better as individuals,” Antetokounmpo said. “This is the beginning of a long journey for us.”
“We had a great season, we just fell short of our goals,” Middleton said.
Antetokounmpo was asked about Leonard’s playoff experience.
“You can tell from the way he plays,” Antetokounmpo said of the 2014 Finals MVP. “He has so much patience, he knows what we wants to do, he has faith in himself and he has been in the Finals before.”
Serge Ibaka’s dunk tied the game at 78 with 10:31 to play in the game, and Siakam’s jumper and VanVleet’s 3-pointer capped a 10-0 run to give Toronto a five-point lead.
A key play was Lowry’s steal and his handoff to Leonard, who dunked to increase the lead to eight with 6:46 remaining.
The Bucks came back with a 7-0 run to pull within one point on Antetokounmpo’s layup with 5:19 to play.
Marc Gasol’s 3-pointer had Toronto ahead by four, but Lopez reduced it to two with a layup at 3:29. The Raptors went up by five on Siakam’s tip-in with 2:06 to play.
Lopez made two free throws with 29.6 seconds to play, cutting the lead to three, but Milwaukee never had the ball within one possession in the closing minutes. Siakam and Leonard finished the game off with free throws.
The Bucks were 6-for-9 from 3-point range to earn a 31-18 lead after one quarter.
Ilyasova’s 3-pointer with 7:48 to play in the first half put the Bucks ahead 38-23.
VanVleet’s 3-pointer with 2:28 to play in the half cut the lead to seven.
Ibaka’s dunk with 1:32 left had the Raptors within five points, and VanVleet’s jumper reduced the lead to three with 1:07 left.
The Bucks scored the final four points of the half to lead 50-43.
Middleton’s second 3-pointer in three minutes had the lead at 14 with 3:46 left in the third. The Bucks worked the lead to 15 before the Raptors went on a 10-0 run, with Leonard scoring eight. The Bucks led 76-71 after three quarters.
By Larry Millson, Field Level Media