It's amazing to think that the Raptors were a possession or two away from being down 3-1 to Philadelphia, a possession or two away from losing Game 7 in that same series, and a possession or two away from being down 3-0 to Milwaukee.
Most title teams have pivotal moments like that, but this Raptors run was special, especially given their recent history of playoff disappointment. There were multiple opportunities for "Same ol' Raptors" moments. But instead of folding, this team stood strong in the face of pressure. And though there were plenty of offensive heroics from Kawhi Leonard and others, the Raptors mostly came through with terrific team defense.
"I think if your team puts down a foundation of defense," Raptors coach Nick Nurse said along the way, "you put yourself in position to win most nights."
Here's a look at six of the key wins along the way that boosted the Raptors to their first NBA championship.
First round vs. Orlando, Game 2
NBA.com/Stats video box score: Raptors 111, Magic 82
It's not typical for a 4-1 series between the No. 2 and 7 seeds to have a pivotal moment. But the Raptors lost another Game 1, treating it like a regular-season game in the eyes of coach Nick Nurse.
"It took one punch in the gut from the Orlando Magic to understand we'd better start playing a lot harder," Nurse would say later. "I think we came out in Game 2 and you saw a totally different basketball team."
Game 1 was kind of an ugly game on both ends of the floor, but the Raptors' managed to make Game 2 even tougher for the Magic offense. Statistically, it was the Raptors second-best defensive game of the season (82 points allowed on 94 possessions).
Key stat: Live ball turnovers: Magic 10, Raptors 2
Key sequence: First quarter, 12:00 - 7:43. Though Game 1 was low-scoring overall, the Magic pulled it out by scoring 20 points on their final 11 possessions, turning a six-point deficit into a three-point victory. In Game 2, Orlando went scoreless on its first nine possessions, turning the ball over four times (with Marc Gasol stripping D.J. Augustin and Jonathan Isaac the first two times the Magic had the ball) and shooting 0-for-6. The Raptors never trailed, led by as many as 34 points, and would go on to win four straight games after that.
"I thought we learned our lesson from that Game 1 against Orlando," Nurse said. "We ripped off about six tough-ass, hard-playing games. I think six in a row, and then took a step back in Game 3 in Philly."
Indeed, from Game 2 of the first round through Game 2 of the conference semis, the Raptors ran off six straight games in which they limited their opponent to less than a point per possession.
But Game 2 of the Philadelphia series was their worst offensive game of the postseason. With the Sixers changing defensive assignments (putting Ben Simmons on Leonard and Joel Embiid on Pascal Siakam), the Raptors scored just 38 points in the first half. Leonard finished with 35 on 13-for-24 from the floor, but his teammates shot a combined 20-for-66 (30 percent).
Then in Game 3 in Philly, the Raptors got waxed. And to add injury to insult, Siakam suffered a bruised calf when he tried to trip Embiid early in the fourth quarter.
Conference semis vs. Philadelphia, Game 4
NBA.com/Stats video box score: Raptors 101, Sixers 96
Game 4 in Philadelphia was, arguably, the most important game in the Raptors' run. After losing by 21 in Game 3, they needed to get a win on the road to avoid a 3-1 deficit.
Key stat: The Raptors outscored the Sixers 33-11 in 12:46 with Embiid off the floor.
Key sequence: Fourth quarter, 9:00 - 3:00. The Sixers led by three after Jimmy Butler drained a 3-pointer with 9:18 to go in the fourth. But the Raptors would hold them to just one point over their next nine possessions.
"Their defense," said Sixers coach Brett Brown afterward, "went up a new level."
For the first time since the acquisition of Gasol, Nurse played his two centers - Gasol and Serge Ibaka - together for extended minutes. In fact, they played together for almost all of what was a pivotal fourth quarter, with Ibaka getting a key block on Tobias Harris and Gasol hitting one of the biggest shots of the season, a 3-pointer to tie the game with 7:08 left.
The Sixers were back within one with just over a minute to go when Leonard got a screen from Gasol with just four seconds left on the shot clock. Embiid switched onto Leonard, who stepped back behind the 3-point line and rose up for what was the biggest shot of the Raptors' season to date.
"I looked up at the shot clock and tried to create as much space as possible," Leonard said. "I just took a shot and believed it would go in."
But the Raptors would need another one of those, because the teams split Games 5 and 6, with the home team winning each game comfortably.
Conference semis vs. Philadelphia, Game 7
NBA.com/Stats video box score: Raptors 92, Sixers 90
There's nothing better than a Game 7 that goes down to the wire. And this one went all the way down.
Key stat: The Sixers totaled just six second-chance points, after averaging 12.5 through the first six games.
Key sequence: Fourth quarter, 3:15 - 1:10. With the score tied after a 5-0 run from Philly, the Raptors came up with three of the best defensive possessions (for any team) in this postseason.
The first was five players on a string and working hard... Gasol making the initial entry pass tough and then hedging an Embiid-J.J. Redick dribble handoff, Ibaka rotating out to Embiid, Gasol meeting Embiid's drive with help, Leonard rotating down to Ibaka's man, and Siakam rotating over to Leonard's man in the weakside corner. That was Butler, who tried to get the ball back to Embiid, but there was no time left on the shot clock.
With the score still tied on the Sixers' next possession, they set three different ball screens for Butler, but he still couldn't shake loose, and Gasol forced him into an impossible, step-back 3-point attempt at the shot-clock buzzer.
After Leonard put the Raptors ahead by two with another jumper over Embiid, the Raptors locked the Sixers down one last time. Siakam denied an entry to Harris in the post, Lowry denied a handoff to Redick, and then Siakam denied another handoff to Harris. Embiid finally got the ball to Harris, but the forward was then 30 feet from the basket with less than five seconds left on the shot clock. Siakam and Gasol trapped him and when he tried to get the ball back to Embiid, Lowry came off his man to steal the ball and lead a break that put the Raptors up four.
Three offensive possessions for a Philadelphia lineup that scored 116.2 points per 100 possessions this season (regular season and playoffs combined), and the ball never even got to the rim.
"There are some stretches where it's darned hard to complete a pass against us," Nurse said. "That wears into a team after a while when you're up into them and you're denying and everybody is just that connected and playing that hard."
Of course, the Sixers managed to tie the game with 4.2 seconds left. And that, of course, led to one last Kawhi Leonard shot over Joel Embiid ...
It was the first Game 7, buzzer-beating game-winner in NBA history. And it took four bounces for it to go in.
"You're within that moment," Leonard would say about pressure situations, "You're embracing it and enjoying what's going to happen next."
It's still not clear that the Raptors were the better team in that series. But all that matters is they were the team that won four of seven games.
Conference finals vs. Milwaukee, Game 3
NBA.com/Stats video box score: Raptors 118, Bucks 112 (2OT)
The Milwaukee Bucks were the best team in the league in the regular season and racked up a 10-1 playoff record through Game 2 of the conference finals, a wire-to-wire, 22-point win over the Raptors. At that point, 67 of the 72 teams that had taken a 2-0 series lead in the conference finals had gone on to win the series.
But the Raptors weren't daunted. After the Raptors were blown out in Game 2, Leonard was asked a question: Where do you go from here, Kawhi?
"I'm going to Toronto," he replied. "Game 3."
In Toronto, Nurse made the big adjustment of putting Leonard on Kia MVP favorite Giannis Antetokounmpo. But Game 3 wasn't a clear signal that the series had turned. The Raptors built a 11-point lead in the first quarter, but Milwaukee hung around and came back from five points down with a little more than a minute left in regulation to send the game to overtime. And Lowry had fouled out with more than six minutes to go in the fourth.
Key stat: Leonard played a career-high 52:08, despite suffering a leg injury that would keep him somewhat hobbled through the remainder of the postseason less than three minutes into the game.
Key sequence: Second overtime, 2:40 - 0:16. The Bucks' only lead since early in the first quarter was after their second possession of the second OT. And that lead lasted only 21 seconds before Gasol hit a big 3-pointer. Still, it was just a one-point game before the Raptors came up with a few more big stops to save their season once again.
The biggest was a remarkable defensive play by Leonard. He deflected Khris Middleton's pass out of the post and then snatched the ball away from Malcolm Brogdon after Brogdon had seemingly beat him to it. He converted the steal into an easy dunk that put the Raptors up three with 1:52 to go.
"Any time you can get a steal and a breakout," Nurse said afterward, "it's a huge momentum play."
Two possessions later, Siakam rejected Brook Lopez at the rim. And after Leonard put the Raptors up four, their pressure defense forced Milwaukee into a back-court violation that sealed the win.
Conference finals vs. Milwaukee, Games 5 & 6
The Raptors trailed Game 5 by 11 points midway through the third quarter and Game 6 by 15 with a little more than two minutes to go in the third. But neither game appeared completely out of hand. And in both cases, they came up with big fourth quarters - 33-24 in Game 5, 29-18 in Game 6 - to win their first Eastern Conference title.
It's hard to determine which win was more important, the one on the road or the one that sent them to The Finals after it was looking like we were heading back to Milwaukee for a Game 7.
Key stat: Leonard, who never had more than eight assists in 570 career games prior to Game 5, had 16 assists total in Games 5 and 6. That number speaks to Leonard's reading of the Milwaukee defense, but also the revival of his supporting cast. Fred VanVleet, who had shot 6-for-42 over a nine-game stretch from Game 2 of the conference semis through Game 3 of the conference finals, hit the biggest shot of Game 5, a right-wing 3 off a kick-out from Leonard that gave the Raptors the lead for good with 2:19 left.
Key sequence: Game 6, Third quarter, 2:10 - fourth quarter, 6:45. If it weren't for Leonard's buzzer-beater against Philly, the 26-3 run that turned a 15-point deficit into an eight-point lead in Game 6 would be the defining moment of the Raptors' run to The Finals.
The exclamation point was Leonard's incredible left-handed dunk on Antetokounmpo on a fast break which started with a Lowry steal. There was still work to be done after that, but the Raptors had found another way to fight through a tough spot.
Just winning the East felt like a championship in Toronto. You could hear it in the crowd and you could see it in Lowry's smile in the final seconds of Game 6. But the Raptors were not done.
The Finals vs. Golden State, Game 4
After the Warriors took home-court advantage with a win in Game 2, Nurse told his team that they just needed to get one of the next two games in Oakland.
"[Expletive] that," was Leonard's response, per Nurse. "Let's go get them both."
With Klay Thompson out, Game 3 was relatively academic. But Game 4, with Thompson scoring 28 points on 11-for-18 shooting, was a much tougher go.
Key stat: The Warriors scored 92 points on 95 possessions, their worst offensive game of the playoffs.
Key sequence: Third quarter, 12:00 - 11:10. The second half began with the Warriors up four with the ball. Siakam switched onto Thompson, stayed in front of him, and forced him to give up the ball. After Andre Iguodala missed a 3, VanVleet pushed the ball up in transition and found Leonard on the right wing for a catch-and-shoot 3 that rattled in.
Seven seconds later, Draymond Green dropped Stephen Curry's entry pass. Leonard grabbed the ball, dribbled up the floor, and drained another 3 in Green's grill.
The tide really turned with an 18-3 Toronto run late in the third quarter, but those two 3-pointers from Leonard were a clear sign that the Raptors weren't going to be victimized by one of those game-changing third quarters from the Warriors.
"Kawhi Leonard came out and hit two big 'eff-you' shots to start the half," VanVleet said afterward. "There's no defense for that. There are no schemes for that. That's two big-boy shots that he came out of the half with, two back-to-back 3s. And that just kind of let you know how we were going to approach the third quarter and the rest of the half. It put us in good position."
Though the Raptors had gained home-court advantage with their win in Game 3, there's a big difference between a 2-2 series and a 3-1 series. Given the circumstances, Game 4 was arguably the Raptors' most impressive win in the postseason. And it put them on the brink of their first championship.
That title came six days later, back in Oakland, where the Warriors had lost just three times over their previous seven series. That the Raptors won three games at Oracle Arena in the span of nine days says a lot about their toughness.
"This is a strong minded, tough-ass group of guys," Nurse said just before his team went out and won Game 6 of the Finals. "It really is."
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