By Sally Fahey
Kawhi Leonard had 27 points and 17 rebounds to lead the Toronto Raptors into the NBA finals for the first time with a 100-94 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks.
The Raptors overcame a 15-point deficit and won the series in six games. They will host the Golden State Warriors in Game 1 of the finals on Thursday night.
Pascal Siakam scored 18 points, Kyle Lowry had 17, and Fred VanVleet had 14 for the Raptors, whose 26-3 run late in the third quarter and early in the fourth turned the game in their favor and reach the championship round.
They needed something more to get further, and they found it the acquisition of Leonard, the most valuable player of the 2014 finals, who was acquired from San Antonio and has carried the Raptors in this postseason.
“He’s the best player in the league, and we’re happy he’s in Toronto,” said Masai Ujiri, the Raptors’ president.
Giannis Antetokounmpo led the Bucks with 21 points and 11 rebounds, but the bid by Milwaukee, the NBA’s top team in the regular season, for a first finals berth in 45 years ended in disappointment with a fourth consecutive defeat.
Down by 76-71 at the start of the fourth quarter, the Raptors tied the score with an 8-2 run while Leonard and Antetokounmpo were both on the bench. Ibaka’s dunk with 10 minutes 32 seconds to go tied it at 78-78.
Antetokounmpo returned after a timeout, but Leonard kept sitting. That did not matter to Toronto, with Siakam’s basket giving the Raptors an 80-78 lead, their first lead since the score was 6-3.
Leonard’s one-handed slam after Lowry’s steal gave Toronto an 87-79 lead with 6:46 to go before the Bucks responded. George Hill answered with a layup, Brook Lopez converted a 3-point play, and Antetokounmpo scored, cutting it to 87-86 with 5:19 to go.
Lowry and Lopez swapped baskets before Gasol’s 3-pointer put the Raptors up, 92-88, with 3:50 left. After another basket by Lopez, Leonard made a 3-pointer that pushed Toronto’s lead to 95-90 with 3:04 to play. It was Leonard’s first 3-pointer after he had missed his first seven attempts of the game.
Toronto made 12 of 27 3-point attempts, including four of eight in the fourth quarter.
Siakam, who missed a pair of free throws late in the fourth quarter of Toronto’s double-overtime win in Game 3, hit one to make it 98-94. Leonard grabbed the rebound on the second and was fouled. He made both, putting the Raptors up, 100-94, with 3.9 seconds to go.
Brogdon and Middleton each made two shots from long range as the Bucks went 6 for 9 from 3-point territory in the first and closed the quarter with 10 unanswered points, leading, 31-18. Toronto shot 6 for 19 in the opening quarter, missing six straight attempts twice in the first 12 minutes.
The Bucks extended their lead to 38-23 on a 3-pointer by Ersan Ilyasova with 7:46 left before halftime. Toronto cut the gap to 46-43 on a 3-pointer by VanVleet with 1:07 left in the second, but Eric Bledsoe answered with a 3-pointer, and Antetokounmpo split a pair at the line, giving the Bucks a 50-43 advantage at the intermission.
The lead went back to 15 in the third before Leonard finished the period with a flourish. He had 8 points in the final 2:01, and Toronto closed with a 10-0 run, cutting a 15-point deficit to 76-71.