Raptors treating Game 6 vs. Bucks as a must-win

At the beginning of this month, the Toronto Raptors faced a 2-1 deficit with a Game 4 on the road in Philadelphia. They were coming off a 21-point loss on the road. Pascal Siakam was doubtful with a calf injury. Their season was on the line. Kawhi Leonard stepped into the spotlight with 39 points, including a game-clinching three-pointer late in the fourth quarter.

About a week later, the Raptors were on their home floor for Game 7, facing overtime and once again ending their playoff run in disappointment. Their season was on the line. Leonard dribbled from one end of the floor to the other and launched the first Game 7 buzzer-beater in NBA history over the outstretched hands of Joel Embiid.

On Sunday, the Raptors faced a 2-0 deficit against the Milwaukee Bucks. Their point guard fouled out midway through the fourth quarter. Leonard played 52 minutes and scored 36 points in a double-overtime win, saving their season once more.

On Thursday, the Raptors shot 34 percent from the field through three quarters. Two of their starters were scoreless heading into the fourth. They trailed by three. Leonard took control of the entire final 12 minutes, scoring 15 of his 35 points in the final quarter, and recorded a career-high nine assists.

In a span of three weeks, Leonard has delivered four of the greatest moments in Raptors franchise history, saving their season each time. His postseason run was already the stuff of legends, and where it places on the all-time list is only continuing to rise with each performance.

On Saturday, Leonard will have a chance to send the Raptors to their first NBA Finals appearance in the franchise’s 24th season. Even though Toronto technically has two chances now to advance to the Finals, head coach Nick Nurse is treating Game 6 as a must-win. The Game 5 road victory was impressive, but no one wants to go back to Milwaukee for a winner-take-all Game 7 on Monday.

“It’s a whatever-it-takes game,” Nurse said of Game 6. “It’s an unlimited minutes night. This is just like any other critical must-win games.”

It’s not technically a must-win for the Raptors, but it will be for Milwaukee, who will be facing elimination after a 60-win regular season and a 10-1 start to these playoffs. Nurse knows none of what has happened in this series so far will matter unless they take care of business on their home court tomorrow.

“This is a great team we’re playing,” Nurse said. “It’s the same team we played in Games 1, 2 and double overtime in Game 3. We’ve had to play really super hard and super well to get any victories.”

Toronto has an experienced roster. Leonard and Danny Green won an NBA championship together in San Antonio. Serge Ibaka has been to the NBA Finals with the Oklahoma City Thunder. Gasol has played in the conference finals before. The experience in the locker room will help them stay even-keeled, as an entire city and country sets their eyes on tomorrow’s game. The Toronto Raptors. One win away from the NBA Finals.

“I expect this one to be the hardest fought of them all,” Nurse said.

They’ll have the best player in the series and perhaps in the entire world right now on their side.

News and notes:

A new era: A day later, I still can’t over the Raptors winning a road playoff game in which they shot 36.9 percent from the field. Having watched so many blowout losses on the road over the years, and having followed so many Raptors teams who wilted at the first sign of adversity, it was amazing to see this team push through last night, staying together, believing in their game plan, and trusting their processes on offense and defense would eventually push them through. Having Leonard helps too. Remarkable.

Statistical oddities: One of the best things when a team comes back from a 2-0 deficit is the stats you break through along the way. Heading into this series, the Bucks were 22-1 this season after a loss. They’re now 22-3. The Bucks had not lost three games in a row all season. Now they have. The Raptors will try to give Milwaukee its first four-game losing streak of the season on Saturday.

Franchise player: With his 35 points and nine assists, all of which led to three-pointers (the most incredible stat from Game 5, to be honest), Leonard accounted for 59 percent of the Raptors’ total points. The 62 points he scored or assisted on was also the most he’s ever accounted for in a single game in his career. Leonard now has seven 35+ point games in the playoffs in a Raptors uniform. That is as many as Vince Carter, Chris Bosh and DeMar DeRozan combined.

Adapt and grow: Nurse was asked about Leonard’s nine assists on a conference call on Friday. “There was a little bit better relocation and just trying to find the correct pathway where he could see you and get the ball to you easier,” Nurse said. “It’s taken some probing and experimenting for us to get to that.”

His answer illustrates a larger point: the Raptors have been able to adapt and grow and find their identity in each of the three series so far. As each series has gone on, the Raptors have imposed their style of play on the opposing team, and now the Bucks need to find a response on the road in Game 6. If they don’t, they’ll be heading to the NBA Finals.

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