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Basketball There’s plenty of room on the Toronto Raptors playoff bandwagon. Here’s what to know

Kawhi Leonard drives to the basket during the second half against the Milwaukee Bucks in game six.

Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

What’s the situation now?

The Toronto Raptors will play in the NBA Finals for the first time ever after eliminating the Milwaukee Bucks Saturday night 100-94. They move on to face NBA champions Golden State Warriors. The Finals tip off in Toronto on Thursday. With the team four wins away from a league championship, here’s a look at what it took to get this far, and what happens next.

Eastern Conference Finals: Toronto vs. Milwaukee

Raptors win best-of-seven series 4-2 against the Bucks.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, the focal point of the Milwaukee Bucks' offence, will not be easily stopped.

Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

  • The Bucks and Raptors met May 15 in Milwaukee for Game 1, with the Bucks prevailing 108-100 in a comeback win. “This one may hurt in retrospect,” writes Cathal Kelly. “It was very doable, until it suddenly wasn’t right at the end.”

Kelly: A long series looms as the Raptors let Game 1 slip away

  • On May 17, the Raptors fell to the Bucks 125-103 and trailed Milwaukee 2-0. Writes Cathal Kelly: “It wasn’t just that Toronto lost. It was how it lost. The Raptors were annihilated within the first 10 minutes.”
  • Game 3 on Sunday was a double-overtime thriller, with Toronto coming out on top 118-112. Leonard played 52 minutes, a career high, and scored 36 points. One Raptor whose return to form would help take the pressure off Leonard is shooting guard Danny Green, who slumped to 1-of-9 shooting but did hit an important three-pointer in the second overtime. “Green knocked down three-point daggers for the Raps all season,” writes Rachel Brady. “Now Toronto needs that player, who has played in two NBA final series, to help the team toward its first.”

Brady: Raptors’ Green looks to build on momentum from key overtime shot

  • In Game 4 on Tuesday night, the host Raptors scored a decisive 120-102 win to tie the series at 2-2. “This time it didn’t require heroics from ... Leonard,” writes Rachel Brady. “The story of the night was the dominant performance from Toronto’s often-criticized bench, who exploded for 48 points – 18 from Norman Powell, 13 from Fred Van Vleet, and 17 from Serge Ibaka to go with his 13 rebounds.” Game 5 goes Thursday night in Milwaukee.

Brady: Toronto’s bench comes up big as Raptors even series with Bucks

  • The series shifted back to Milwaukee for Game 5 Thursday night, but the change of scenery did not benefit the Bucks. “The Raptors bounced back in a game they once trailed by as much as 14,” Rachel Brady writes, “and stole a 105-99 Game 5 victory over the No. 1-seeded Bucks.”

Brady: Raptors one win away from NBA finals after stealing Game 5 from Bucks

  • In Game 6 on Saturday night, the Raptors eliminated the Milwaukee Bucks with a 100-94 win. Kawhi Leonard poured in 27 points and hauled down a game-high 17 rebounds. Pascal Siakam had 18 points, while Fred VanVleet finished with 14.

Brady: Raptors eliminate Bucks in Game 6, earning their first-ever spot in NBA finals

Kelly: The Raptors didn't just win -- they completely changed their post-season identity

  • The Eastern Conference champion will play the Golden State Warriors in the NBA Finals. Golden State swept the Portland Trailblazers in the Western Conference Finals.

NBA Eastern Conference Finals summary

GameDayDateTime (ET) or ResultAwayHome
1WedMay 15108-100 MILTorontoMilwaukee
2FriMay 17125-103 MILTorontoMilwaukee
3SunMay 19118-112 TOR (2OT)MilwaukeeToronto
4TueMay 21120-102 TORMilwaukeeToronto
5ThuMay 23105-99 TORTorontoMilwaukee
6SatMay 25100-94 TORMilwaukeeToronto

Source: NBA

Who’s who on the Raptors

Raptors players from left: Marc Gasol, Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam and Danny Green.

Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

For the casual fan, maybe only a few names on this year’s edition of the team will be familiar. Spark-plug point guard Kyle Lowry, the longest-serving Raptor. Leonard, thanks to his reputation as a San Antonio Spur. President Masai Ujiri, who has built the team from the lean years of the early 2010s to its place today. The roster overhaul began in the offseason, when Ujiri fired coach Dwane Casey and replaced him with lead assistant Nick Nurse. Then, the blockbuster trade that brought Leonard to town in exchange for hyper-loyal all-star DeMar DeRozan, a surprise to just about everybody.

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Cathal Kelly: New Raptors coach Nick Nurse is an unproven commodity, but he’s better than nothing at all

Cathal Kelly: The DeMar DeRozan trade is a knife to the heart. And it had to be done

The reconstruction of the Raptors continued right up until February. Here are the names that matter now, the ones who figure to play key roles as the playoffs continue:

Kawhi Leonard, forward

The publicity-averse superstar who has the option of leaving in free agency this summer had plenty to prove after being acquired in July. After a season lost to a quadriceps injury, his stated goal was to regain his health. For the Raptors, the aim was to convince the 2014 final MVP to stick around long term. He’s that special. The Globe’s Robert MacLeod wrote in October: “The 6-foot-7, 230-pound enigmatic forward can do it all at both ends of the court: on defence, locking down the opposing team’s top player; or on offence with the ability to drive to the basket or score from the perimeter.” Despite sitting out 22 games in 2018-19 to rest his recovering body, Leonard led the Raptors with 26.6 points a game, the highest average of his career.

Robert MacLeod: What Kawhi, Nurse, Lowry and Co. have in store for the East this season

Kyle Lowry, point guard

DeRozan was Lowry’s best friend, so his departure was tough for Lowry to accept. But he did, and he started the year as the team’s undisputed leader. As Cathal Kelly wrote for The Globe a quarter of the way through the season, “Kawhi Leonard gets all the print because he’s the team’s shiny, new penny, but Lowry has been the driving force of this Raptors season.” That mentality stuck all year, through struggles with a sore back and the occasional shooting slump. Lowry ended up second in the league in assists, at 8.7 per game.

Cathal Kelly: Kyle Lowry and the Raptors have finally transcended early-season hype games

Pascal Siakam, forward

In his third NBA season, Pascal Siakam went from backup to borderline all-star for the Raptors.

Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

The third-year Cameroonian who mostly came off the bench last season spent 2018-19 raising his charismatic profile around the NBA, to the point where he promises to be a contender for the league’s most-improved-player award. In a January game, Siakam hit a running layup to secure a win over Phoenix. As Robert MacLeod wrote at the time: “For the effervescent Siakam, it was his first close-out winning shot of his NBA career and he was beaming with delight afterwards in the locker room.” He finished as the team’s second-leading scorer and an ideal complementary piece to Leonard in the front court.

Rachel Brady: Pascal Siakam is a rising star for the Toronto Raptors

Marc Gasol, centre

Gasol, the 34-year-old Spanish national with a high basketball IQ, rare passing ability and outstanding defence, was acquired in a trade that sent popular centre Jonas Valanciunas to Memphis. The Globe’s Cathal Kelly summed up Gasol’s attributes plainly: “He is the prototype of a modern NBA centre – he can shoot, can pass, can stand in the middle being imposing. Unlike Valanciunas, he’s a bit chippy. He is a three-time all-star and has been the NBA’s defensive player of the year.” In the two months of the regular season after he was acquired, the Raptors were best in the league at three-point shooting.

Cathal Kelly: Toronto Raptors’ deadline deal should be applauded and appreciated

Nick Nurse, head coach

In his first year as an NBA head coach, Nick Nurse guided the Raptors to top-five rankings on both offence and defence.

Don Juan Moore/Getty Images

The 51-year-old rookie coach from Iowa has paid his basketball dues, and he was rewarded with the opportunity to lead a title contender. As The Globe’s Rachel Brady reported in an October profile, “over his five years on Casey’s staff, Nurse’s reputation for offensive imagination grew. He got much of the credit for the team’s transformation in 2017 from an isolation-heavy offence to one that focused on ball movement and three-point shooting.” This year, he applied that creativity even further, meshing various lineups to adjust to injuries, trades and Leonard’s rest days. The result? A team that finished in the top five on both offence and defence, and a 58-win season, the second best in franchise history.

Rachel Brady: Toronto Raptors’ Nick Nurse may be a rookie NBA coach, but he’s no newbie

Path through the playoffs

Toronto entered the postseason as the second seed in the East. It also had the second-best record in the league on the strength of its bothersome team defence, hot three-point shooting and dominant play on both ends of the floor by Leonard.

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Eastern Conference quarter-final: Toronto vs. Orlando

  • The Raptors faced the seventh-seeded Orlando Magic in Round 1, and promptly dropped the first game at home. If Toronto’s fan base is one of the most nervous in the NBA, the team’s habit of losing Game 1 (the Raptors have three wins and 14 losses overall in Game 1s) is a big reason why.

Orlando Magic guard D.J. Augustin exploded for 25 points in Game 1 of the first round.

Nick Turchiaro/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

  • That early stumble seemed to ignite some intensity in the Raptors. After their 104-101 win, the Magic would not score 100 points in a game the rest of the series. Toronto won each of the next four games.

Rachel Brady: Raptors bare their teeth, bounce back in playoff series

  • Leonard averaged 27.8 points a game in the series to lead the team in scoring, while Lowry made his contributions in other ways: he averaged 8.6 assists and his team was +21.2 when he was on the floor. Meanwhile, Gasol embraced his defensive assignment, holding the Magic’s Nikola Vucevic to 11.2 points a game, far below his season average of 20.8.

Eastern Conference semi-final: Toronto vs. Philadelphia

  • Toronto’s next opponent was a formidable Philadelphia 76ers team featuring budding superstars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons and key mid-season acquisitions Jimmy Butler and Tobais Harris.
  • Very little went as expected in this series. Four of the seven games were blowouts: Games 1 and 5 for the Raptors, and Games 3 and 6 for the Sixers. Coaches Nick Nurse for Toronto and Brett Brown for Philadelphia struggled to make in-game tactical adjustments, only to seemingly figure everything out in the lopsided games.

Toronto Raptors head coach Nick Nurse, left, and Philadelphia 76ers head coach Brett Brown traded tactical adjustments in the second round.

Tom Szczerbowski/USA TODAY Sports via Reuters

  • Embiid, an All-NBA player when healthy, battled illness and knee problems all series, and was only his overwhelming self in Game 3 – though Gasol’s defence was vital to slowing him down. On the other side, Toronto’s Siakam suffered a calf injury in Game 3 and played through pain the rest of the series, sometimes quite obviously.

Rachel Brady: Injury could put Pascal Siakam on sidelines as Raptors look to tie up series against 76ers

  • Defence was a key factor for both teams, but a major source of concern for Toronto was its failure to effectively shoot three-pointers. The team with the best three-point shooting percentage in the NBA after it acquired Gasol in February (41 per cent), the Raptors managed to shoot only 29.8 per cent in this series. For comparison, the worst distance-shooting team in the NBA this season, the Phoenix Suns, was at 32.9 per cent.
  • The one constant for Toronto was Leonard. In Game 7 he accounted for 41 of the team’s 92 points and 39 of its 89 shots, including the dramatic game-winner. Never in the history of the NBA had a player hit a series-winning shot as time expired in a Game 7. But with 4.2 seconds on the clock and the score tied, Leonard received an inbounds pass, hurried to one of his favourite spots on the floor and launched an arching jump shot over the outstretched arm of seven-foot centre Joel Embiid. The shot bounced twice on the front rim, then twice on the back rim, all while Leonard, Embiid and 20,000 others inside the arena held their breaths waiting for the outcome. It dropped, and the Raptors lived another day.
Kawhi Leonard scored a buzzer-beating jump shot to lift the Raptors 92-90 over the Philadelphia 76ers and into the Eastern Conference finals for the second time in franchise history. Leonard’s shot bounced four times on the rim before falling, and he says the moment will be a highlight of his career. The Canadian Press

Rachel Brady: Leonard’s buzzer-beater pushes Raptors past 76ers in Game 7 for the ages

Cathal Kelly: Kawhi Leonard delivers on Toronto’s gamble – and exorcises the ghost of Vince Carter – with series-winning shot over 76ers

‘I wanted it so bad’: Serge Ibaka bounces back with huge Game 7 for Raptors

Video: FANS SHARE WILD REACTIONS TO HISTORIC GAME 7 FINISH

Toronto Raptors fans across the country shared videos on social media of themselves and those they watched the final moments with jumping and screaming as Kawhi Leonard sunk the winning basket. The buzzer-beater in game seven against the Philadelphia 76ers sends the Raptors to the NBA eastern conference final. The Globe and Mail

Compiled by Mason Wright

With reports from Robert MacLeod, Rachel Brady, Cathal Kelly and The Canadian Press

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If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

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