The good, the bad, and THE RAPTORS ARE BACK in a 100-94 victory against the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 6 of Eastern Conference finals to clinch the franchise’s first trip to the NBA Finals.
Winner: Kawhi Leonard
After the Raptors traded for Kawhi Leonard last summer, the only thing guaranteed was that Leonard would spend one season in Toronto. We weren’t sure how Kawhi would move on the court following almost a full season lost to a hamstring injury, if his game would have the same magic, and if he’d even give Toronto his all. Kawhi is one of the more mysterious superstars in recent history despite playing in the social media era—how could anyone know how he felt about being a Raptor for the next 10 months?
Throughout the playoffs, Kawhi became Spurs Kawhi again. Whatever negative reputation he accrued during his last season in San Antonio was put in the back of the filing cabinet of his career, only to be revisited when debating about where he ranks all time at the end of his career.
It’s too simple to say one team won because they wanted it more. But in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference finals, the Raptors played like their fans cheer: with desperation. Toronto bled with purpose; Milwaukee, meanwhile, looked lost. Nobody—not longtime Raptor Kyle Lowry, not first-year coach Nick Nurse, not even Sideline Drake—projected that desire to win more than Kawhi—the player who might be in Toronto for only a year.
At his best, Kawhi’s game is a rare combination of grit and flash, discipline and creativity. He is a superstar made from a unique formula. He can give you big moments, like the dunk that essentially ended the game long before it was actually over:
But Kawhi’s true greatness lies in the cluster of moments that don’t come with much celebration: playmaking, deflections, steals, timing, and a downright telepathic read on the Bucks. Kawhi’s defense shut down Giannis Antetokounmpo better than anyone had before—per ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry, Giannis averaged 27.9 fewer points per 100 possessions while guarded by Kawhi than his regular-season average during the first five games. Leonard led the wall Toronto built to eliminate Giannis’s penetration game, and he led the effort in crashing the offensive glass, a stat at which the Raptors excelled all playoffs. With 1:15 to go in the fourth and the Raptors up five, he grabbed one of those offensive rebounds over Giannis and Brook Lopez.
Kawhi finished with 27 points, 17 rebounds (four on offense), seven assists, two steals, two blocks, and a strong case for the greatest player in Raptors history. Perhaps one season is all he needs.
Loser: Mike Budenholzer
Coaching isn’t as easy to analyze as it may seem. Much of it is done behind closed doors and left off the Mic’d Up segments. But there are some decisions so effective (or defective), some ATOs so clever (or rash), and some schemes so revolutionary (or antiquated) that even a casual fan knows they’re valuable (or detrimental).
Mike Budenholzer’s minutes management seems like one of those choices, and because of it, he will likely be put on blast for the entire offseason. (He’ll also probably be named Coach of the Year, which he earned during the regular season. Basketball is weird.) Giannis was averaging 38 minutes in the Raptors series entering Game 6, which is five more than he averaged during the regular season but low for a team’s best option in the playoffs; Leonard, for instance, averaged 41 through six games. On Friday, Budenholzer told reporters that he didn’t plan on playing Giannis more in Game 6 because it would make his time on the court less effective: “At the end of the day, you need to be able to produce and perform, including in the fourth quarter. I don’t feel any different about how we use him, how much we use him.”
Giannis finished Game 6 with 41 minutes, which is more than what he totaled in four of the Bucks’ previous five games. But he was still on the sidelines for crucial moments. Giannis was out of the game during the first minute and a half of the fourth quarter with the Bucks up five; by the time he subbed back in, it was tied, 78-78. Budenholzer rested Giannis in brief spurts, then put him back in when it was absolutely necessary, like the Bucks were holding their breath as long as they could before gasping for air. A Giannis at his peak physical condition is better than a tired Giannis, but a tired Giannis is better than no Giannis, especially when there might not be another game to conserve his energy for.
Winner: Kyle Lowry
Pour one out for DeMar DeRozan. I imagine he’s somewhere in Texas where Texans go to be very sad, like a saloon or in a car driving past the rival high school that beat them in the state championship 17 years ago or Jerry Jones’s house. But I have to also think DeRozan is happy for his good friend Kyle Lowry, the last remnant of the OG Raptors and the only one to get a shot at going where no Raptor has gone before: the Finals.
Just reaching the Finals changes Lowry’s legacy with the franchise. For all his lows through the years, including all of those ghastly Game 1 performances, he is now part of the team that made history. Lowry was solid throughout this Bucks series. There was no classic playoff Lowry game (for the record, a classic playoff Lowry game is not a good thing), and he averaged 19.2 points and shot 46.9 percent from behind the arc while still doing typical under-the-radar Lowry things, like throwing his body before a driver and nudging his 6-foot-1 frame through rebounding scrums. Lowry won’t ever be the protagonist who wins it all for the Raptors—DeRozan wasn’t even enough to do that for Toronto—but he’s earned a shining spot in Raptors history.
Loser: Giannis Antetokounmpo
It’s strange to see the best team of the regular season without a real plan for the climax of their season. No Buck was able to take control of the second half and the offense was directionless.
Giannis is the first player on the call sheet for that role. If anyone on the roster should be able to will the team to a win, it’s the presumptive MVP, right? But Antetokounmpo was just 1-for-5 from the field in the fourth quarter, with his lone bucket coming with more than five minutes to play. Khris Middleton fits the mold of the type of player who often steps up in this moment, but he struggled even more than Giannis (0-for-2 in the fourth). The best Buck down the stretch, statistically, was Brook Lopez, who had 11 points on 4-for-5 shooting in the final frame.
Dominating in the postseason isn’t the same as dominating during the regular season. Your team’s beautifully constructed offense often devolves into bully ball, and the player with the best isolation skills often wins out. The Raptors’ defensive wall largely took away Giannis’s best offensive skill by cutting him off short of the rim. Without the ability to pull up for his own midrange or outside shot consistently, Milwaukee’s five-position unicorn was out of place.
Giannis will still receive accolades this summer, and they’ll be well deserved. Something tells me the playoffs will be what he remembers instead, and the shot missing from his skill set will be the focus of his offseason.