TORONTO -- It was gut-check time for the Toronto Raptors, over and over again. Kyle Lowry fouled out halfway through the fourth quarter, and their five-point lead disappeared in two minutes. Norman Powell fouled out with about a minute left, Pascal Siakam missed a pair of free throws and a 35-footer, and they went to overtime in danger of falling down 3-0 against the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals.
With the season hanging in the balance on Sunday, Danny Green hit a 3 in overtime, his first basket of the game, just as a previously-scoreless Fred VanVleet had done with about three minutes left in regulation. In the second overtime, Kawhi Leonard's enormous left hand invaded the passing lane between Khris Middleton and Malcolm Brogdon, vaporizing what could have been an open 3 before the superstar stole the ball and dunked it home. Siakam redeemed himself in the final minute, first with the flying block that erased a Brook Lopez layup and then with the free throws that finally put the game out of reach. They could have fallen apart, but they stood up to the big bad Bucks.
Had any number of plays gone slightly differently, you might be reading about Leonard's uncertain future or how the Golden State Warriors should "fear the deer." So many times, Milwaukee refused to die and the Raptors had to conjure extra energy. The image that will last is of Leonard, who labored through a career-high 52 minutes, throwing down a lefty dunk on a fast break in the second overtime and grimacing in pain. Just as significant, however, was a first-overtime possession in which Leonard missed a step-back jumper over Brogdon, but Siakam nudged Giannis Antetokounmpo under the rim and grabbed an offensive rebound. Matched up with one of the league's best defenders, Siakam elected to go right at him, hitting Antetokounmpo with an up-and-under move and laying the ball in.
Toronto coach Nick Nurse wanted Siakam to challenge Antetokounmpo and Lopez on the inside. "We gotta take it in there with a little more physicality, courage," Nurse said before Game 3. "Did I say physicality yet?" The Bucks built their dominant defense around their size, and its goal is to intimidate -- they not only defend shots at the rim better than any other team in the NBA, they discourage shots at the rim better than any other team in the NBA. At their most imposing, they make teams hesitant and indecisive. Nurse, however, will never believe that Milwaukee's style should stop the Raptors from playing their way.
If Nurse has a guiding principle, it is that basketball must be played with all-out aggressiveness. He believes in playing with pace and purpose and an attacking mindset. Shots will be missed and mistakes will be made, but there are karmic rewards for doing everything you do with complete conviction. In between Friday's nightmarish 125-103 loss and this 118-112 victory, Nurse stressed that Toronto's passes needed to be on target and its shooters needed to be shot-ready. The Raptors' offense has looked overly reliant on Leonard at times in the postseason, but, when it is flowing properly, it generates good looks for everybody.
"You have to continue to move and have that rhythm on your feet, your hands, your mind," Toronto center Marc Gasol said. Gasol knows that, against this team in particular, catch-and-shoot opportunities should present themselves. "And whenever you get that ball, let it fly."
Gasol did just that, making two open 3s in the game's first four minutes and another in the third quarter. When he hit his fourth, in the second overtime, the normally paint-bound Lopez had adjusted, getting a hand up. Gasol had 16 points, 12 rebounds, seven assists and five blocks, a massive bounce-back performance after what he called a "pretty sh***y" 48 hours -- Gasol had publicly blamed himself for the Game 3 debacle.
In the 118-112 victory, the Raptors had 28 assists on their 40 made field goals. Leonard scored 36 points on 11-for-25 shooting, but had help, especially from Gasol, Siakam (25 points, 11 rebounds, three steals) and Powell (19 points, four rebounds and three assists). Imagine if Green and VanVleet had shot better than a combined 2-for-14 from 3-point range.
"I think our mentality was just better tonight," Nurse said. "Our feet were ready, our hands were ready and … our mentality was a little bit better to go ahead and pull the trigger."
In timeouts, Leonard told his teammates to live in the moment, be calm and execute their game plan. They had so much more to lose than the Bucks did, but they couldn't think about the stakes. If they were going to come up short, they were going to come up short playing the way they had for the vast majority of the season, sharing the ball and staying connected on both ends. It was a million times more intense than the regular season, but they mostly succeeded in doing that.
Even with a star player as unflappable as Leonard, it is impossible for the Raptors to embody Nurse's favorite qualities -- unpredictability on offense, disruptiveness on defense -- on every possession, with precisely the right amounts of patience and urgency. Against a championship-caliber team like the Bucks, playing to their desired identity is even more difficult. They had 11 steals on Sunday, though, and made Antetokounmpo (12 points, 5-for-16, eight turnovers, six fouls) uncomfortable, with Leonard serving as his primary defender. This, combined with some crunch-time resilience, was enough to survive and perhaps breed a deeper sense of confidence. As scary as the deer can be, Toronto knows it cannot fear them.