After trailing 2-0 to the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, the Raptors have clawed (or should I saw Klawed) their way back into the series by winning three straight. Tonight, they’ll have a chance to win the series at home and move on to their first NBA Finals in franchise history.
On the biggest day in Raptors history (to this point), I did a Q&A with Anthony Doyle, contributor at Raptors Republic. You can follow Anthony on Twitter @Anthonysmdoyle and Raptors Republic @raptorsrepublic.
Dylan Burd: Obviously the Raptors trailed 2-0 in this series and now lead 3-2. What’s changed the last 3 games for Toronto?
Anthony Doyle: I’m not sure that anything did, really. Game one the Raptors outplayed the Bucks for most of the game before having some issues at the end of the game cost them the result, and game two currently looks like an outlier where the Bucks were the better team. Toronto has really been the better team for most of the series so far, but they’ve allowed Milwaukee enough runs to keep the games close. Toronto hasn’t shot well offensively, and they’d do well to have a night where they actually saw more of the open shots they’re creating go down, but otherwise I think the gameplan has been solid throughout the series, and the results in games 3 through 5 have mirrored the play more and is what has caused the series to tilt the way it did. This series is really a story of transition though, because the Raptors are dominating the halfcourt game and as long as they can limit Milwaukee’s ability to get out and run, they will have control on the scoreboard as well.
Dylan Burd: Kawhi Leonard is averaging 31.4 PPG these playoffs. Where does this individual playoff performance rank for you in terms of recent history and how do you think it affects free agency?
Anthony Doyle: It’s very near the top. What he’s doing at both ends of the floor to control the game is just incredible, and it’s hard to really compare because I can’t remember many times where a player making an offensive impact on that level also affected the game defensively in as many ways as Kawhi can. Especially when he’s doing it on limited mobility, it’s breathtaking to watch, and we can only hope that he can keep it going as long as the Raptors playoff run keeps going. As far as his free agency, I don’t want to put the cart ahead of the horse, but the Raptors have done everything you could ask in terms of selling the team to Kawhi. The load management throughout the season kept him healthy and ready to do this in the playoffs, and the city and fans have been fantastic as well. Kawhi has done his part as well, playing hard and through a few different ailments, and being effective throughout. The real remaining question is whether the most important factor for Kawhi himself is the location he plays, because if he values being in Los Angeles more than anything else, that’s something the Raptors can’t offer him, and that would change the equation. We can’t answer that question yet, but leaving that as the remaining factor is the best place Toronto could be right now.
Dylan Burd: What’s your thoughts on Nick Nurse and how he’s coached this series?
Anthony Doyle: There are places where you can definitely be critical of Nurse this season. He seemed slow to adapt at times and the offense can still, even in the playoffs, get stagnant and revert to some bad habits. However, and this for me is the overriding point at this juncture, his defensive gameplan has been on point and has been everything it’s had to be against some of the best offenses in the association. He’s made the adjustments to slow down both Joel Embiid and Giannis Antetokounmpo, two of the most unstoppable forces in basketball at this point in time, and used his personnel to keep things to the point where the Raptors always seem to have an opportunity to win, even when their offense isn’t operating at the highest level. That, combined with the trust that’s developed between him and Kawhi, tells me that we should be very happy with the job he’s done, and he’s given the Raptors the opportunity to get to the Finals for the first time in franchise history.
Dylan Burd: Fred Van Vleet and Norman Powell have been absolutely huge this series, especially from beyond on the arc. Is their success essential to this Raptors team winning?
Anthony Doyle: I don’t think they specifically have to come up as big as they have this series, but someone certainly does. There have been two foundational players in this playoff run for Toronto, in Kawhi Leonard and Kyle Lowry, who have consistently brought what the Raptors needed from them in nearly every game through the postseason. Everyone else has been somewhat inconsistent and had some moments where they haven’t delivered, and the two stars need a few contributions from the other rotation players in every game, but it doesn’t always have to come from the same guys. It’s been Powell and VanVleet in the last few games, but it could be Danny Green, who is due for a big game, or Marc Gasol, Pascal Siakam or Serge Ibaka in the next game, and each of those guys is capable of delivering. For the rest of the playoff run, though, it’ll be hard for the Raptors to win any games without at least two or three of those guys being a solid contributor.
Dylan Burd: The Raptors have had their best season in franchise history regardless of what happens next. Describe what it’s been like within the Raptors community to see this, especially since everyone’s been waiting for them to get over the hump the last 4-5 years.
Anthony Doyle: It’s been interesting as Raptors fans have adapted to a team that doesn’t have the same historical tendencies. We’re used to seeing certain moments where the Raptors eventually fall apart and disappoint, and despite the love for the team in the community, you learn to brace yourself for that expectation, to lessen the hurt when it does happen, and this team keeps finding ways to succeed in those moments. Game five against the Bucks was another example of this. The Raptors kept fighting back into the game and then hitting a wall where the Bucks would build the lead back, and Raptors history had taught that eventually the Raptors would break in that moment, would have the Bucks build the lead back and just keep going, because that’s what always happens with the Raptors. Instead this team showed that their fight wouldn’t quit there, and they took control for themselves when the game came down to the decisive moments, and that’s a new part of Raptors playoff history now. It changes the entire way we look at the franchise in the postseason, and they are no longer the butt of the joke. It’s hard to entirely explain what it feels like to experience that change, and go from dreading the next big moment to looking forward to it, but that change is happening with Raptors fans and it’s definitely exciting.
Dylan Burd: If the Raptors go on to win the series, do they have a chance against the Warriors?
Anthony Doyle: You’re never going to be the favorites against a team that’s won three of the last four titles, and that won’t change for the Raptors, they’ll be the underdogs and they’ll have to embrace that once again, like they did against Milwaukee. I do think there’s a path for Toronto though. They’ve shown themselves to be a tough defensive team that can stand up to the tests in front of them, and they’ve slowed down a few of the best in the league at that end already in the playoffs. The Warriors get their points differently than how the Sixers or the Bucks do, but the Raptors defensive talent is versatile. In order to win that series they’ll have to make their way at that end of the floor again, and they’ll have to step up on the offensive end as well. The margins are slimmer against the Warriors than other teams, and having a period where you can’t find shots can lose you games in short order. That being said, I would say the Raptors definitely have a realistic shot, and moreover, I think the Raptors believe that themselves, which is critical.
Dylan Burd: Prediction for Game 6/the rest of the series
Anthony Doyle: For the Raptors Republic roundtable going into the series, I predicted the Raptors to win the series in six games, and I’ll stick with that here. I think they take care of business at home on Saturday night and move on to the Finals, because I believe in their experienced roster showing through and delivering in a moment like this once again. Milwaukee isn’t going to give up without a fight, and it’ll likely be a tight game, but the Raptors should have enough answers in the end.