After two games in the Eastern Conference Finals, it seemed that Bucks were on the way to the NBA Finals. Milwaukee struggled early in Game 1 but finished strong to seal the victory, and in Game 2, the Raptors looked defeated and were dominated by 22 points. At that time, we were ready to crown the Bucks, but as a wise man once said, “A series does not start until the road team wins.” The Bucks were second favorite behind Golden State last week, meanwhile those odds have shifted with The Raptors 10/1 underdogs to win the tournament – that’s if they get past Bucks and Golden State.
The series shifted to Toronto, and the Raptors were able to clip the Bucks in double OT in Game 3, and in Game 4, Toronto routed Milwaukee, and now, we go back to Milwaukee with the series tied at 2.
We are starting to see why Kyle Lowry was an All-Star this season. Lowry had 25 points last night, and he is playing much better than he did in the previous round against the Sixers. Also, role players play better at home, and that was the case for Toronto in Game 4 on Tuesday night. Marc Gasol chipped in with 17 points, and Toronto’s bench was big time. Serge Ibaka had 17 points and 13 rebounds; Fred VanVleet finally joined the party by dropping 13 points, including 3-3 from downtown, and Norman Powell continued his excellent play with 18 points.
It’s the best of three, and at this point, the Bucks seem to have the advantage because two out of the next three games(if necessary) will be in Milwaukee, but will that matter? The best player in these playoffs has been Kawhi Leonard. Giannis Antetokounmpo has been excellent; Kevin Durant was getting it done before the injury. However, Leonard has been better. He carried the Raptors to the Eastern Conference Finals after averaging 34.7 points per game against the 76ers, including an epic, series-clinching jumper at the buzzer to beat Philly, and while his team struggled in the first two games of the Eastern Conference Finals, Leonard did not. He scored 31 points a piece in Games 1 and 2, and in Game 3, where he played a game-high 52 minutes, Leonard poured in 36 big points. We forget that Leonard was a Finals’ MVP, and we forget that before last season, Leonard was considered the best two-way player in the game. If he can work through his leg fatigue, Leonard gives the Raptors a shot to steal a game in Milwaukee—–something the Raptors were able to do once in the regular season.
Rudy Tomjanovich once said, “Never underestimate the heart of a champion,” and Leonard has shown championship mettle in the past and is showing it right now. Antetokounmpo will probably win the regular season MVP, but if we were handing out a postseason MVP, it probably would go to Leonard.
Can the best player in the postseason get it done for Toronto? Milwaukee had not lost more than two games in a row all season, so losing four in a row could be asking a lot, but with the play of Lowry and the Raptors’ bench, I can see Toronto making the NBA Finals. However, that won’t happen if Leonard is not healthy.