TORONTO — The situation may be new for Toronto as a city, but it’s old hat for Kawhi Leonard.
The Toronto Raptors star knows a thing or two about big NBA playoff games from his time with the San Antonio Spurs — and the experience Leonard and others bring to the table is proving to be quite valuable in the Eastern Conference final.
Instead of folding when facing adversity, the Raptors have rallied from a 2-0 series deficit to take a 3-2 lead heading into Game 6 against the Milwaukee Bucks on Saturday at Scotiabank Arena.
“Experience helps a lot,” Leonard said after carrying the Raptors back from two double-digit deficits in a statement road win in Game 5.
“Just from my input, I’ve been here before. I’ve been to the Finals, and it’s pretty much nothing new that I’m seeing out there. You’ve just got to have fun with it and enjoy it. Like I told them tonight, we were down 10, I told them to enjoy the moment and embrace it, and let’s have fun and love it. This is why we’re here.”
While Raptors teams of the past have been known for their playoff flops, the revamped 2018-19 version seems calm, cool and collected when things get tough.
A perfect example came in Game 5. Toronto committed four turnovers before the game was five minutes old and the team fell behind 18-4 in the first quarter.
The rest of the game, Toronto turned the ball over just twice more. The Raptors won despite shooting just 36.9 per cent from the field, relying on outstanding half-court defence to contain the high-flying Bucks and clutch work at the offensive end from Leonard and Fred VanVleet.
Any sense that Toronto would repeat its 2016 playoff storyline — battle back from a 2-0 Eastern Conference final deficit against Cleveland, only to lose Games 5 and 6 in decisive fashion — went out the window in Milwaukee as the Raptors prevailed 105-99.
“I think the experience factor comes in a number of ways,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “I think, obviously, you can start with maybe late game stuff, guys that have been there before, have experienced that and know how to handle themselves in those situations, reacting to wins and losses throughout (the) series is another thing veteran guys, you know, they’ve been through it before. They know.
“And a big one that, I think, many people talk about is rest, and these games are coming pretty rapid fire, and the veteran guys kind of know how to go out there and give you 40 (minutes), and though they have one day and a half to recoup themselves and re-energize themselves … they’ve been through it before. I think our guys have shown they know how to do that as well.”
The Raptors’ five starters from Game 5 had combined to play 264 playoff games heading into this year’s post-season, well above the Bucks starters’ total of 88.
Raptors forward Pascal Siakam, by far the least experienced member of the starting unit, said the calmness of the veterans is rubbing off on him.
“Yeah, definitely helping me because for me, if I get something like that I get mad, I get upset and I want to kill myself,” he said. “But just having those guys like Kawhi, Marc (Gasol), Kyle (Lowry), Danny (Green) continuing to just tell me to stay in it and just know that whenever I’m out there just be smarter and it’s going to work out.”
The Raptors have now erased series deficits in all three rounds of the post-season.
“Serge (Ibaka), Kawhi, Kyle, they’ve all been talking to us, Marc (too),” Raptors swingman Norman Powell said. “Just staying focused on the task at hand, enjoying it, playing together, sticking together and going to battle for one another. I think that’s what’s been really important.
“After the first two games, Serge talked to us during film, before coach showed us the clips, about what happened (with him) in OKC. Even today, he talked about it more. Kyle and Kawhi talked about what they’ve been through and the continued work (that’s needed) when you go on these runs. Just to stay focused at the task. Every game is going to be different. But when you’re playing hard and leave it out there, you can live with the results.”
If Game 7 is necessary, it will be Monday in Milwaukee. But Nurse isn’t thinking that far ahead.
“(Game 6 is) a whatever it takes game, it’s an unlimited minutes night … This is just like any other critical, must-win game,” he said. “Again, I stress this is a great team we’re playing. The same team we played in Games 1 and 2 and double overtime in Game 3, and we’ve had to play really super hard and super well to get any victories.”
The series winner faces the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals.
The Canadian Press