MILWAUKEE, Minn. — The Toronto Raptors are headed to the Eastern Conference semifinals. But they didn’t take the easiest path in getting there.
DeMar DeRozan scored 32 points as the Raptors held on to beat the Bucks 92-89, but not before watching their 25-point lead vanish in a fierce Milwaukee comeback.
The Raptors clinched the best-of-seven series 4-2 to advance to the conference semis, where they face defending champion Cleveland.
Kyle Lowry added 13 points, but he and DeRozan were the only Raptors to score in double figures. Serge Ibaka had 11 boards but just seven points before fouling out for Toronto.
Giannis Antetokounmpo scored 34 points and nine rebounds to lead a young Bucks team. Thon Maker, who played high school basketball in Orangeville, Ont., had five blocks.
The Raptors, who had never won a playoff series in less than the maximum number of games, dominated for much of the night and led by as many as 25 points midway through the third quarter. But the Bucks responded with a 15-3 run to cut Toronto’s lead to 74-61 heading into a nail-biting final frame.
Toronto, coming off back-to-back wins over Milwaukee, had gone five minutes without a field goal before Lowry’s long jumper early in the fourth. But the Bucks kept firm hold of the momentum, while the Raptors coughed up one ball after another, and when Kris Middleton drilled a three and drew a foul with 4:06 to play, it pulled the Bucks to within a point.
Jason Terry drilled a three on the Bucks’ next possession to put the Bucks ahead, while the ear-splitting Bradley Center crowd roared.
Cory Joseph’s three-pointer with 1:27 to play put Toronto up by three, then DeRozan drove to the hoop for a dunk with 49 seconds to play for a five-point cushion. Still, the Bucks weren’t backing down. Terry connected on a three to make it just a two-point game with 16 seconds left. But DeRozan scored two free throws, then Patrick Patterson intercepted Tony Snell’s inbounds pass to clinch the win, DeRozan spiking the ball victoriously.
All the pre-game talk was about closing this series in six games, both to avoid the Game 7 pressure the Raptors know way too well, and give themselves a breather before tipping off Monday against the resting Cavaliers in Cleveland.
Toronto lost to Indiana and Miami last year in Game 6 before rallying to win Game 7. Three years ago, the Raptors dropped Game 6 against Brooklyn before being beaten by the Nets in Game 7.
“We talked about it, how beneficial it would be, how important tonight is,” coach Dwane Casey said, then added jokingly: “But again, if Milwaukee will co-operate that would be great.”
“Our guys understand: it won’t be from our guys overlooking Milwaukee. Our guys understand the moment, Game 6, what the consequences are, of winning or losing this game.”
The Raptors shot 46 per cent on the night, and made nine of their 22 three-point attempts. The Bucks shot 42 per cent.
The second-seeded Cavaliers, meanwhile, have been off since sweeping No. 7 Indiana on Sunday.
Fuelled by the fired-up crowd, the Bucks raced out to a six-point lead against the notoriously slow-starting Raptors. Casey made an early sub, inserting Jonas Valanciunas for Ibaka, and the Raptors settled into their game, outscoring the Bucks 24-14 the rest of the quarter. They took a 28-24 lead into the second.
The Raptors rode their wave of momentum into the second quarter, and took a 13-point lead on a basket by DeRozan with 29 seconds left in the half. Toronto took a 51-38 lead into the break.
Consecutive threes from Ibaka, Norman Powell and DeMarre Carroll put the Raptors up by 25 points with 5:16 to play in the third, but the Bucks fought back with a 15-3 run.