Published On: Sun, May 26th, 2019

Leonard legend grows with Raptors’ Game 6 triumph over Bucks

The Four Bouncer was something else and fortuitous to a degree.

The Dunk? It was power and nastiness, an emphatic finish.

It was all the things Kawhi Leonard has done in his year in Toronto, and it might be the one play they will eventually remember him for.

It came after a brilliant dump pass from Kyle Lowry midway through the fourth quarter, and with the imposing presence of Giannis Antetokounmpo at the rim. And there came Leonard, leaping and exploding and throwing down a dunk that reverberated for the rest of the night.

The play only gave the Raptors a six-point lead — and there were many more nervous moments to get through — but, man, it was a play.

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“It was great,” Leonard said. “The building exploded after that dunk and it kind of got us a little more adrenalin.”

Lowry knew precisely what he was doing and for whom.

“It was a momentum kind of capper,” Lowry said. “Why not feed the big dog? Let the big dog eat.”

And it was brilliance, the likes of which haven’t been seen around here ever.

Carving out legendary status on a team he has been with for just one season, Leonard had 27 points and a career-high 17 rebounds as Toronto beat the Milwaukee Bucks 100-94 to win the Eastern Conference final in six games.

With a crowd of more than 20,000 screaming in the arena — and countless thousands of other fans standing on the streets, living and dying with each basket — the Raptors moved on to face the Golden State Warriors in the NBA final beginning Thursday night in Toronto.

It is the first time a Raptors team has been in such rarefied air and it will end a truly wondrous post-season that Leonard has put together.

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Yes, the shot that bounced and bounced and bounced and bounced to eliminate the Philadelphia 76ers in the conference semifinal was something else, but Leonard’s play from that point has gotten even better and he’s never been more impactful that he was on Saturday.

Making shots, drawing fouls — rebounding his own missed free throw and getting fouled again, for goodness sake — Leonard almost single-handedly lifted the Raptors to the win.

They had scuffled on offence and been bad on defence, losing 50-50 balls and being beaten on the backboards and just enough out of sync to find themselves in a 15-point hole. It was Leonard time.

He had a three-point play and then another basket. He made two of three free throws after goading Eric Bledsoe into a foul and the one he missed, he rebounded by blasting down the lane to get the ball and two more free throws.

That binge, with a Serge Ibaka basket sandwiched in between, got the Raptors within five points to start the fourth quarter and breathed some life into a crowd that had gone quiet. And then, the dunk.

And later the conference title and, soon, the NBA final.

“It’s still surreal to me right now,” Leonard said. “But this is what we’ve been striving for all season. It’s not over yet.”

Leonard was uncharacteristically spotty in the first half, committing four turnovers with managing just eight points and three assists.

It’s not that he was nervous or taken aback by the situation and the stakes, because those traits are not in his nature. But the mistakes were costly as the Bucks got out to a 31-18 lead after a quarter before a 21-12 Toronto run late in the second quarter gave Milwaukee a 50-43 advantage at halftime.

But when Leonard got going, so did his team. He did not panic or get ruffled, and it transferred to his teammates.

“I don’t know how many more good things I can say about him, he’s just so good,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “I’m seeing a level of competitive greatness out of him, it’s just his willing us to win and grabbing those rebounds and willing those shots in, it seems. Going down and locking someone up and taking the ball from him. It’s what it is, it’s great competitive desire.”

Doug Smith is a sports reporter based in Toronto. Follow him on Twitter: @smithraps

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Leonard legend grows with Raptors’ Game 6 triumph over Bucks