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Raptors finish off Bucks in Game 6 to reach NBA Finals for first time  3 Months ago

Source:   USA Today  

TORONTO — All the risks Toronto Raptors president Masai Ujiri took proved worthwhile.

Trading for Kawhi Leonard and Marc Gasol, sending franchise star DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio, sacrificing depth, signing Kyle Lowry to a three-year contract in 2017, replacing Dwane Casey, the coach of the year, after last season with first-time NBA head coach Nick Nurse — all worth it for the Raptors.

Toronto reached the NBA Finals for the first time in the franchise’s 24-year history with a 100-94 victory against the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 6 on Saturday.

Was it worth that wait? That’s a resounding yes from Lowry, who lost in the conference finals to Cleveland and LeBron James in 2016 and lost to James and the Cavs as the top seed last season.

"It's taken a long time to get here in my career, 13 years, seven years here," Lowry said. "I've run into one guy (LeBron James) for a while. We were given the opportunity — he left — and we beat a really good team in Milwaukee. For me, I'm going to savor the moment, but I'm not satisfied. Our goal is to win the NBA championship. We're just going to keep getting better and plugging away."

That’s a yes from a country of Raptors fans who have created one the best atmospheres in the NBA.

Leonard, the star of these playoffs, had 27 points, 17 rebounds, seven assists and two steals in Game 6, including 19 points and 12 rebounds in the second half. Leonard made big bucket after big bucket and grabbed important rebound after important rebound during a pivotal second-half run.

The MVP chants at the end of the game were a fitting end to this series.

"He's the best player in the league, and we're happy he's in Toronto," Ujiri said at the conference championship trophy presentation.

Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo had 21 points and 11 rebounds in a crushing learning experience. Just a hunch: He will be back in this spot. But a Finals appearance will have to wait.

"This hurts, but what they did in this playoffs, against a really good Toronto Raptor team, and to get to the conference finals, the regular season, special season for us," Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. "And we feel like we're just getting started. This is the beginning of our journey. And again, I couldn't be more proud of our team."

MORE FROM THE NBA PLAYOFFS

The Raptors will play the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors for the title starting with Game 1 on Thursday in Toronto, the first time the league has played a Finals game in Canada.

With James headed to the Western Conference to the Los Angeles Lakers, Ujiri felt this was the time to make bold moves, starting with the Leonard acquisition.

Milwaukee led the series 2-0. Then Toronto turned the series around, winning the next four games. The Bucks had not lost more than two consecutive games all season.

But starting with Game 3, the Raptors increased their defensive intensity, and Nurse made Leonard the primary defender on Antetokounmpo. Norman Powell took on a bigger role off the bench, and Fred VanVleet started making 3-pointers at an improbable rate.

Leonard was the MVP of the series and is the main reason the Raptors won Game 6.

"I just want to win," Leonard said. "I don't care about being the best player. I want to be the best team. I've always said that. Just before the season when we made the trade, Masai felt that way about me. He told me how he felt and why he made the trade. It's turning out well now. We're in the Finals, and we're not done yet."

Milwaukee led for a significant portion of the first three quarters and had multiple 15-point leads. They were up 76-61 late in the third quarter and looked like a team prepared to force Game 7 at home.

That’s when Leonard took over, fueling a 26-3 Raptors run as the Bucks collapsed, unable to get production from players they relied on all season.

It started with a Leonard three-point play, a foul that should’ve never been called because Toronto’s Serge Ibaka pushed Milwaukee’s Ersan Ilyasova into Leonard, who made Toronto’s next basket and assisted on the one after that. Leonard got a rebound, then got fouled on a 3-point attempt. Leonard made two of the foul shots and grabbed the rebound before getting fouled.

Toronto trimmed Milwaukee’s 15-point lead to 76-71 by the end of the third quarter. Pascal Siakam’s short jumper put Toronto ahead 80-78. The Raptors led for the rest of the game.

When it was crunch time in this series, Toronto took over.

Siakam had 18 points, Lowry added 17 points and eight assists and VanVleet scored 14 points. VanVleet shot 14-of-17 on 3-pointers in the final three games of the series after going 3-for-25 in the previous 10 playoff games.

A week ago, it seemed unrealistic the Raptors would win this series. A team had fallen behind 2-0 in the conference finals 56 times, and just five teams had come back to win the series before this matchup.

"To accomplish what we've done, winning the Eastern Conference, you've got to really truly believe you can do it," Nurse said. "That was kind of my message from day one of training camp: We've got a good team here, we've got good players, we've got depth, we've got a lot of things.

"We've got to understand that there are a lot of good teams in the East, but we're right up there. That belief started things, and I think we always kind of thought that. So that's the starting point."

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