Kawhi commerce pays off with Raptors’ Finals berth

2:45 AM ET

Tim BontempsESPN

TORONTO — After the confetti fell on the Raptors, contemporary off of their 100-94 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in Sport 6 of the Jap Convention finals Saturday evening that despatched Toronto to the NBA Finals for the primary time in historical past, president of basketball operations Masai Ujiri was requested on TNT’s telecast how the commerce for Kawhi Leonard turned out.

“He is the perfect participant within the league,” Ujiri mentioned, because the sellout crowd inside Scotiabank Area — all 20,478 of whom have been nonetheless of their seats — roared in approval.

“And we’re completely happy he is in Toronto.”

Simply as he has all all through these playoffs, Leonard was dominant once more in Sport 6, ending with 27 factors, 17 rebounds, 7 assists, 2 steals and a pair of blocks to steer the Raptors to a fourth straight victory over the Bucks, as Toronto — the staff that has fallen brief so many instances over the previous few years — lastly had its day within the solar.

It did so due to the commerce Ujiri swung for Leonard final summer time, sending out franchise icon DeMar DeRozan — together with Jakob Poeltl and a first-round decide — for the celebrity ahead, plus Danny Inexperienced. After the Raptors had seen their season finish three straight seasons by the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, Ujiri was decided for issues to be completely different.

And, because of Leonard, they’re.

“I do not actually choose my recreation like that,” Leonard mentioned, when requested about Ujiri’s feedback. “I am extra of a staff facet, see what my staff is doing [guy]. I simply wish to win. I do not care about being the perfect participant. I wish to be the perfect staff. I’ve at all times mentioned that.

“Earlier than the season, after we made the commerce, Masai felt that method about me. He instructed me how he felt, and why he made the commerce.

“It is turning out nicely now. We’re within the Finals, and we’re not performed but.”

It appeared as if this could be a really completely different end result late within the third quarter, when Toronto was trailing 76-61 and the group was all however silent. However then the Raptors ripped off a 26-Three run over the subsequent eight minutes of recreation motion — capped by an enormous Leonard dunk following a steal by Kyle Lowry with 6:46 left, making the rating 87-79.

“It was a type of momentum capper,” mentioned Lowry, who completed with 17 factors, 5 rebounds and eight assists. “We type of have been on a run, and why not feed the massive canine? Let the massive canine eat.”

On the time, it felt like the start of a victory lap for the Raptors — however that feeling was short-lived. Milwaukee instantly responded with a 7-Zero run over the subsequent 90 seconds to drag again to inside one, organising a tense ultimate jiffy.

All through all of it, although, Toronto by no means trailed once more. A wonderful driving Lowry layup pushed Toronto’s lead again to a few, after which back-to-back Three-pointers by Marc Gasol and Leonard gave the Raptors a 95-90 lead with Three:04 left.

Whereas the ultimate jiffy have been frenetic, Milwaukee by no means had one other probability at a tying shot.

Ultimately, the sport ended with Leonard — who else might or not it’s? — flattening a pair of free throws with Three.9 seconds left after corralling a free throw miss by Pascal Siakam to present the Raptors the ultimate margin of victory, and at last set the celebrations in movement each inside Scotiabank Area and among the many tens of 1000’s of followers congregated outdoors of it in “Jurassic Park.”

Even Drake, who was in his customary courtside seat sporting a hoodie with “Kawhi Me A River” written on the again, was in on the enjoyable.

Kobe Bryant breaks down the efficiency of Toronto Raptors ahead Kawhi Leonard in opposition to the Orlando Magic within the first spherical of the playoffs. Watch on ESPN+

“I feel initially, to perform what we have performed, successful the Jap Convention, you have to actually actually imagine you are able to do it,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse mentioned. “That was type of my message from day one among coaching camp: We have a very good staff right here, we have good gamers, we have depth, we have lots of issues. We have to grasp that there are lots of good groups within the East, however we’re proper up there. I feel that perception began issues, and I feel we at all times type of thought that. In order that’s the place to begin.

“And Kawhi is like — I do not know what number of extra good issues I can say about him. He is simply so good. And once more, I am seeing a stage of aggressive greatness out of him. It is simply his prepared us to win and him grabbing these rebounds and prepared these pictures in virtually it looks like, and happening and locking up any individual and taking the ball from them. It is what it’s; it is nice aggressive want.”

It was solely every week in the past the Raptors discovered themselves down Zero-2 on this sequence, and being counted out by many earlier than even taking part in a single recreation on their house courtroom. However the factor that made this Raptors staff completely different than earlier iterations was Leonard.

For months, there have been skeptics relating to Toronto’s selections to observe Leonard’s minutes so intently this season — to the purpose the place “load administration” formally entered the NBA lexicon. There have been doubters about the necessity to make such a transfer for a participant few ever gave the Raptors an opportunity of retaining past this season. All through these playoffs, although, Leonard has delivered again and again — most notably along with his unimaginable shot to win the Jap Convention semifinals in opposition to the Philadelphia 76ers, one which bounced on the rim 4 instances earlier than falling by way of the web.

Saturday evening’s efficiency did not fairly require these heroics. However Leonard offered greater than sufficient to elevate the Raptors to the NBA Finals, and to make Ujiri’s declaration to the group afterward removed from a foolhardy one.

“It is nice,” Leonard mentioned of returning to the NBA Finals for the primary time since successful Finals MVP with the Spurs in 2014. “I labored so exhausting to get up to now with the season I had final 12 months, simply at all times betting on myself and figuring out what I really feel and what’s proper for me. I ended up coming right here with an incredible group of men, lots of expertise. And I simply strived with them every single day.

“I simply type of purchased into their system. Kyle helped me loads with my transition, on the courtroom and off the courtroom, asking him questions, him simply pushing me on the ground as nicely and letting me know what to do in conditions when he calls performs. All that arduous work simply put collectively.

“Now we’re right here, and it is thrilling.”

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