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Kawhi Was the Best Player on the Court in One of the Biggest Wins in Raptors History

Maybe hold off on Giannis’s coronation. Toronto won Game 5 of the East finals, and is now one win away from its first NBA Finals, because Leonard performed like the best player in the game, the series, and the conference.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The resurrection of Fred VanVleet’s jumper, the all-court poise of Kyle Lowry, the devastating defense that has banished Mike Budenholzer’s half-court offense to the deepest recesses of postseason hell—all of it played crucial roles in the Raptors’ 105-99 Game 5 win over the Bucks on Thursday, which gave Toronto a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference finals. Let’s not get too cute about this, though. The Raptors won Game 5—in Milwaukee, where the Bucks had been a domineering 39-9 this season—in large part because, when it mattered most, they had Kawhi Leonard, the best player on the court, in this series, in the conference, and maybe, at this moment in time, in the whole goddamn league.

Toronto settled down after an 18-4 Bucks blitz to start the game, battled back by clamping down and drilling some long balls, and kept the sometimes skittish hosts from running away. The Raptors stayed within striking distance and, despite shooting a dismal 34.9 percent as a team, trailed by only three after three quarters; the game, and maybe the series, was just sitting there. So Leonard did what he does: He walked right up with a Frigidaire stare and friggin’ took it, dominating as a scorer, playmaker, and defender, flirting with a triple-double, and leading the Raptors to a place they’ve never been before—one win away from the NBA Finals.

Two days after putting up 19 points in a clearly labored effort in Game 4, a significantly more spry Leonard scored 15 in the fourth quarter of Game 5. (It’s amazing what coming off of 34 minutes rather than the 52 he logged in Game 3 can do for your wheels.) He took advantage of Milwaukee’s tactical shift toward switching pick-and-rolls to facilitate mismatches onto Brook Lopez, then torched the Bucks center for back-to-back 3-pointers to give Toronto a four-point lead with just under eight minutes to go. He also dished three assists in the final frame, including a kickout to Marc Gasol for a big 3 (the center’s only make of the night) that increased the lead to seven, and a strike to VanVleet for a right-side triple that put the Raptors up for good.

He grabbed one of several huge offensive rebounds for Toronto in the final two minutes—he followed his own missed 3, somehow coming away with the ball under the backboard, and then got pushed out of bounds by Milwaukee superstar Giannis Antetokounmpo, earning Leonard two free throws to inflate the Raptors’ margin for error. He helped limit Antetokounmpo to just three field goal attempts with two turnovers in the fourth, continuing his work as the premier deterrent of the potential 2018-19 Most Valuable Player.

Leonard was everything the Raptors needed, every time they needed it, and the result was another unbelievable game in a postseason full of them. He finished with 35 points on 11-for-25 shooting, including a 5-for-8 mark from 3-point range and 8-for-9 at the foul line—his seventh outing of 35 or more in these playoffs, making him just the 11th player ever with that many in a single postseason run. He totaled a career-high nine assists—all of which led to 3-pointers, meaning Kawhi directly accounted for 59 percent of Toronto’s offensive output in Game 5. And he also had seven rebounds, two steals, and only a single turnover in 40 minutes of work. All while guarding one of the most unguardable players in the world.

This was it: the opportunity for two of the best basketball players on the planet to write the next chapter in their stories, to assert their primacy in the Eastern pecking order, to burnish their bona fides as the kind of superstar who can tilt the highest-leverage games there are through peerless skill and sheer force of will. This was the moment. Leonard seized it.

“I’m not afraid of the moment,” he told reporters after the game. “I enjoy it.”

It wouldn’t be entirely fair to say that Antetokounmpo shrank while Leonard soared. After a somewhat disconnected and passive start that saw him look more to distribute the ball than to continue sledgehammering his way into the teeth of a Raptors defense loaded up on his drives, Antetokounmpo ratcheted up his aggression and effectiveness late in the second quarter and carried it over into the third, keying a 14-2 run that gave Milwaukee a 12-point lead just over four minutes into the second half. He finished with 24 points on 9-for-18 shooting, six rebounds, six assists, and a block in 39 minutes.

But as respectable as the final tally looks, Antetokounmpo was clearly not the primary force in the biggest game of the Bucks’ season thus far. He continued to look at least somewhat flustered by the Raptors’ combination of length and strength on the ball—Leonard, mostly, but Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, and Gasol also put in shifts trying to slow down his surges. And he also seemed bothered by timely, active help defense, which often influenced him into getting off the ball or trying to feed a teammate for a pressure-release 3-point shot. Once again, Milwaukee’s marksmen misfired; Khris Middleton, Malcolm Brogdon, Eric Bledsoe, Brook Lopez, and Nikola Mirotic combined to go 5-for-22 from beyond the arc in Game 5.

Making matters worse, Antetokounmpo tweaked his right ankle trying to defend Leonard in the backcourt after a missed Bledsoe 3 with 1:34 to go, leading Budenholzer to sub his ailing superstar out of the game in a huge spot, with the Bucks down four. He sat for only 38 seconds, but in that span, the Bucks failed to come up with the rebound of a missed Leonard jumper, and allowed Gasol to grab the offensive board, draw a foul, and tack another point onto the Raptors’ lead. Maybe Toronto would’ve come up with the loose ball regardless, and the Bucks still had a chance to tie—one they’d squander when Bledsoe drove pell-mell into the paint, only to lollipop a pass to Brogdon, who dribbled the ball off his leg under duress and out of bounds for a turnover—but a chance nonetheless. That Antetokounmpo wound up on the sideline watching critical late-game possessions because an awkward step tweaked his ankle, though, was yet another dispiriting moment in a fourth quarter full of them for the Bucks.

All season long, Milwaukee has been the team with the battering-ram superstar who just pounds opposing defenses until they break. Now, the Bucks are getting a taste of their own medicine—only the monster they’re facing can shoot 41.7 percent from deep and 92 percent from the free throw line on 10 attempts per game. A series initially pitched as a coronation for the sport’s latest fashion has instead turned into a reminder that, before Zaza Pachulia’s fateful closeout, Leonard was the two-way game-plan wrecker who seemed most likely to win MVP and Defensive Player of the Year in the same season. After an injury-plagued season out of the spotlight, Leonard is breaking down Budenholzer’s beautiful system on both ends of the court in a tour de force return on one of the biggest stages in the sport—and maybe showing that the 24-year-old Antetokounmpo, as breathtaking as he is, might not quite be ready for the bright lights that come with it. Leonard is staring the best team in the NBA dead in the eye and taking its lunch money. It’s remarkable to watch.

The Raptors are 48 minutes away from the first NBA Finals in franchise history, and now they have to close it out. It won’t be easy. The Bucks won’t give it to them; they’re going to have to take it. This is why you trade for Kawhi Leonard. He’s the right man for the job.