The Toronto Raptors utterly collapsed. Yet they gathered themselves in the nick of time and managed to survive.
Despite letting a 25-point lead completely disappear, the shaky Raptors escaped Milwaukee with a harrowing 92-89 win over the never-say-die Bucks to win the first-round series 4-2. That sets up a second-round series with LeBron James and Cleveland Cavaliers in a rematch of last year's Eastern Conference final.
"We stayed calm," said DeMar DeRozan, who led Toronto with 32 points. "They fought extremely hard. We knew they would make it hard and we just had to sustain. We didn't expect to be down and fighting back in the last couple of minutes, but we stayed calm and executed."
The Raptors had been 1-5 in Game 6's. It was easy to recall Game 6 losses to Indiana and Miami last year – series the Raps had to salvage in Game 7. But there had also been the 2014 NBA playoffs, when Toronto held a 3-2 series lead over Jason Kidd's Brooklyn Nets, only for Kidd's team to take Games 6 and 7. It seemed feasible that a Bucks team lead by the unstoppable Giannis Antetokounmpo could push the series back to Toronto.
The fan base in Milwaukee had its attention very much divided Thursday night, between the Bucks and what their beloved Green Bay Packers would do in the ongoing NFL Draft. Still, chants of 'MIL-WAU-KEE' opened the night. To poke fun at the Raps' frequent references about 'repping the 6ix', the Milwaukee fans circulated a giant flag with their area code – 414. They were about to have plenty of reason to get loud.
The crowd went nuts for the Bucks' opening 8-2 run – all buckets courtesy of the Greek Freak, and relished the sight of Toronto coach Dwane Casey calling frantically for an early timeout.
All the talk early in this series was about the challenge of dealing with Milwaukee's length. Yet, the Raptors saved the series by going small – swapping a big man out of the starting lineup for a winger. For a third straight game, the Raptors started Norman Powell instead of Jonas Valanciunas.
The Lithuanian centre, however, came off the bench two minutes into the game when Serge Ibaka got into foul trouble. He made his mark – scoring in the paint, drawing fouls, patrolling the boards and generally aggravating Greg Monroe.
DeRozan was playing through traps and double teams – scoring 10 first-quarter points, helping Toronto to a 28-24 lead by the end of the first.
The Bucks tried throwing 6-foot-11 centre John Henson at Toronto – a guy who had played a total of eight minutes in the series to that point. He instantly provided rebounding help, but still Toronto was clogging the paint and held the Bucks to 14 second-quarter points.
DeRozan had amassed 16 points by halftime. The always-acrobatic Antetokounmpo was getting little scoring support from his Milwaukee teammates, accounting for 18 of his team's 38 points as Toronto took a 51-38 lead into the locker room.
That lead swelled to 25 points in the third, but then Milwaukee made it very tense for Toronto in a last gasp. The Bucks hacked furiously at the lead, largely by turning the Raps over, then capitalizing. With every bucket, the raucous, towel-waving crowd grew louder.
Suddenly a Toronto team that was shooting 50 per cent earlier couldn't make a thing. There were marvelous athletic feats from Antetokoumpo and timely jumpers from Khris Middleton and Matthew Dellavadova. It was 39-year-old Jason Terry who hit the dagger with 3 minutes left – a three-pointer that finally put the furiously-charging Bucks into the lead.
Toronto wrestled the lead back in the nail-biting final minutes on buckets from Patrick Patterson, Cory Joseph and DeRozan. Lowry was Toronto's second-highest scorer, with 13 points.
"Once it got to the last couple minutes of the game, we understood now we've got to execute on both ends - just get one stop, rebound the ball, go down offensively, be calm, be patient, not force anything and get a basket," said DeRozan. "Possessions where Pat scored, Cory scored, that was big for us, and that was the time of the game where we really buckled down and understood: it's winning time."
The Greek Freak had 34 for Milwaukee while Middleton had 19 and Dellavadova 12.
"I'm going to be honest with you – we thought we were the better team, thought were able to beat the Raptors and make it to the second round," said Antetokounmpo. "But at the end of the day, we fought and I think we got the Raptors' attention and the NBA's attention."
The Cavaliers await Toronto, after finishing their sweep of the Indiana Pacers on Sunday. That series will begin Monday in Cleveland. The Raptors – especially Lowry with his ailing back – are grateful to have a few days to prepare.