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STEVE SIMMONS: Raptors step up for Kawhi in enormous win over Bucks

Raptors Kawhi Leonard is triple teamed by the Milwaukee Bucks' during the second half in Toronto on Tuesday night. Jack Boland/Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network
Raptors Kawhi Leonard is triple teamed by the Milwaukee Bucks' during the second half in Toronto on Tuesday night. Jack Boland/Toronto Sun/Postmedia Network

There will be at least one more game in Toronto — maybe more — for the remarkable Kawhi Leonard as a Raptor.

And no one is ready for any of this to come to an end.

Not yet. Not this soon. It’s been too emotional. It’s been too exciting. It’s been too exhilarating.

And now, a best of three. One team will be going to the NBA Finals. That’s what left between the Raptors and the great Milwaukee Bucks. The Raptors have been this close to the championship round once before — only it didn’t feel anything like this.

It felt impossible against LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Now, it feels attainable, not a mountain climb, not a dream, just something that can be accomplished. A Toronto mini-miracle of sorts — only this is no miracle.

This is as close to being real.

Kawhi limped his way through 34 minutes of play Tuesday night, wasn’t at his best, winced when he landed on his right leg at times, winced when he landed on his left at times, didn’t have his usual feel for the ball throughout the game, and then left with 3:39 to go to a standing ovation, some 37 seconds after hitting only three-point shot of the night and demonstrating a rare piece of emotion with a fist pump.

It was a fist pump kind of night for the Raptors, over and over again, and instead of being carried by Leonard, the Raptors carried their somewhat fallen teammate. He had played a career high 52 minutes in the double overtime of Game 3, and clearly that time took its toll on him. But really, what was most impressive about the Raptors after the 120-102 win at the Scotiabank Arena, was a team playing like a team, individuals playing above their normal skill-level, with great players being great players — an absolute sensational night against the best team (record wise) in the NBA.

Where to begin to celebrate after this victory? With one of Kyle Lowry’s greatest games as a Raptor. With a giant performance from Marc Gasol, offensively and defensively, at centre. With fabulous play from the normally up and down Serge Ibaka, who was part of a Raptors bench that completely dominated the Bucks, outscoring them 48-23 — and that was more than the difference in the final score.

It all started with Lowry in the first quarter. He’s scored more in other playoff games over the years. But has he ever been better than he was in Tuesday night’s victory, more complete, more important, scoring 25 points, hitting 10-for-10 from the free throw line, playing early on with gigantic energy that the Raptors certainly benefited from.

He was the early energy and efficiency. Lowry scored 12 of the Raptors 32 first-quarter points, the only quarter that was close. He played the kind of game he often talks about playing, being a difference maker, changing games, being a leader, adjusting. It started with Lowry. He was the leadoff hitter.

It moved from him to becoming a giant night for the Raptors bench and by comparison a quiet night for the Raptors giant, Leonard. Around here, the end of this season and when that might be — and the possible end of Leonard’s time in Toronto is picking up steam. Restaurants are offering free food for life if he chooses to stay in Toronto. A law firm is offered free legal advice. Uber is offering free rides. And what’s more enticing for a man making $40 million a year than free burgers.

But good for local businesses to get involved. Because there’s only one Leonard. There’s only one season like this one. Unless there’s another and another after that. This is his journey and your journey and it’s not quite over yet for anyone. It’s reached the most exciting point, frankly, in Raptors history.

The Game 7 shot against Philadelphia was nice. The incredible Game 3 performance against Milwaukee was superb. Now it’s about him and about his teammates and about this coach — that’s how championships are won — or certainly how they’re played for.

Leonard had just 19 points, Pascal Siakam has just seven and they won. It may not make sense — but playoffs don’t always make sense.

All season long, in coach Nick Nurse’s rookie campaign, he’s talked about his bench and what he wanted from them. They responded Tuesday night. Ibaka scored 17, Norm Powell had 18, Fred VanVleet 13.

And with Ibaka, it wasn’t just how much he scored, but how he scored. Two second-quarter slam dunks sent the crowd into a frenzy. The emotion of the dunks got him going, brought him into the game. At no time in the second half was the result in doubt.

Now it’s rest time. Kawhi gets today off for travelling and treatment. So do his teammates. The Raptors continue to be the talk of the town. This is like nothing we’ve ever known or seen before — and it keeps on getting better.

Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019

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