It snuck into a group conversation with Kawhi Leonard one night earlier this week, a quick phrase dropped that gave a glimpse of just what NBA playoff basketball means to him.
“Keep fighting,” the Raptors all-star said. “We have a chance to make history.”
And for a player who famously — and in many ways correctly — said the regular season is little more than 82 warmup games, it spoke volumes about what this time of the season means to him.
It’s time for history to be made, time when reputations are made, time when everyone’s watching and time when everyone’s on heightened alert to watch and appreciate the very best players in the league.
He’s got his chance now.
After another wonderful performance, Leonard and the Raptors are within a game of playing for the NBA championship after beating the Milwaukee Bucks 105-99 here Thursday night in a dramatic Game 5 of the Eastern Conference final.
Combined with a stunning night of shooting by Fred VanVleet — he made seven of nine three-pointers — Leonard’s play gives Toronto a 3-2 lead in the best-of-seven series.
They can close it out Saturday at Scotiabank Arena. Game 7, if necessary, will be here Monday.
Leonard had 15 of his 35 points in the fourth quarter as Toronto rallied from a sluggish start to pull away for the victory.
A Pascal Siakam dunk with about 16 seconds left sealed the game, and Kyle Lowry put it away with two free throws with 11.8 seconds remaining.
Leonard is a bit beaten up, as is every player on the teams still alive, but he’s not going to use nagging tweaks in both legs as any kind of excuse. He was moving more fluidly here Thursday than he did at home on Tuesday and didn’t even take a chance to get some extra rest.
“I think he’s a little fresher today maybe than he was a couple days ago, it seems, in just his demeanour and his moving around in general,” Nurse said before the game. “I gave him the option to skip shootaround today, and he said: No, I’m going. He wanted to come. He wanted to get out and do some stuff. So I think we’ll be OK. We’ll have to read it, as usual.”
Named to the second all-NBA team on Thursday afternoon, Leonard continued his ascension through the playoff pecking order with his team-high point total at Fiserv Forum.
With two-fifths of the Raptors starting lineup virtually invisible — Danny Green and Marc Gasol combined for four points and were scoreless through three quarters — the Raptors needed Leonard’s excellence just to stay close.
And as he’s done the entire post-season, he produced. It’s been astonishing to see him kick his game into another gear; his statement about the regular season being just practice games was right on.
“He seemed to cruise to 30 points a lot of nights — 30 is a lot in this league, and that’s why I kept saying: Geez, it just feels like there’s another gear here with this guy that we’re going to see,” Nurse said before the game. “He said that (practice-game comment) with about six weeks to go, and I was like: Now we’re talking. Now we’re talking. I mean, listen, he’s playing great.”
The Bucks made the first major lineup adjustment of the season — putting Malcolm Brogdon in the starting unit and bringing Nikola Mirotic off the bench — and it made it more important that Leonard provide all the offence he could.
Brogdon had 11 points and 11 rebounds for the Bucks, and Eric Bledsoe discovered his missing shooting ability to pour in 20 points of his own.
It didn’t catch the Raptors by surprise that the Bucks made a change, but it was the trickle-down effect they worried about.
“It’s not that crucial, I don’t think, who the starters are sometimes,” Nurse said. “It’s more: What lineup changes is he going to make, and rotation changes is he going to make, once the game gets going? And then you have a chance to match or not match, or go with what you hope to do and whatever.”
The Raptors stayed with the matchups that had worked so well in wins in Games 3 and 4, particularly Leonard on Giannis Antetokounmpo, who finished with 24 points but was not as dominant as he had been in Milwaukee’s two wins.