SportsPulse: USA TODAY Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt and the Milwaukee Sentinel Journal’s Matt Velazquez break down the importance of Toronto’s win over Milwaukee in Game 3 of the Eastern Conference finals.
USA TODAYTORONTO — Nearly 90 minutes after temporarily saving Toronto’s season, All-Star Kawhi Leonard emerged from the trainer’s room, exhausted but finally victorious after a game against Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference finals.Earlier Sunday evening, Leonard played a career-high 52 minutes with the toughest of playoff assignments: defend Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo on one end of the court and provide enough offense on the other end so that his team had a chance — just a chance, no guarantees — to beat Milwaukee.“It’s playoff basketball,” Leonard said. “I want to win. … We’re still here. Nobody wants to go home. We’re going to keep striving to reach that goal. That’s what I pride myself on, both ends of the floor.”Right now, there might not be another player in the NBA capable of handling that assignment. He shot, clawed, limped, scored, dunked and defended his way to another memorable performance with 36 points, nine rebounds, five assists, two steals and one block in Toronto’s 118-112 double overtime victory in Game 3 on Sunday.It helped Toronto avoid what has been an insurmountable 3-0 deficit in NBA playoff history.Kawhi Leonard shoots the ball during overtime against the Bucks. (Photo: Gregory Shamus, Getty Images)GAME 3: Raptors avoid dreaded 3-0 series hole with 2OT winOPINION: Why new Draymond Green no longer ‘disgusting’WATCH OUT: Warriors’ uncertain future only makes them scarierOn Saturday, Raptors coach Nick Nurse told the team Leonard would take more of the defensive responsibility on Antetokounmpo, who barreled his way through Toronto’s defense in Game 2.Toronto had to make the game more difficult for Antetokounmpo. And Leonard did, with help from his teammates.“It’s a team deal with (Antetokounmpo), right,” Nurse said. “But again, Kawhi did a great job. You guys watched the game. He was up and not giving him quite as much runway to get flying off of.”Antetokounmpo finished with 12 points on 5-for-16 shooting, 23 rebounds, seven assists and eight turnovers. It was his lowest-scoring game of this season’s playoffs.“At the end of the day, I’ve got to not focus on who’s guarding me and just keep making plays,” Antetokounmpo said.AutoplayShow ThumbnailsShow CaptionsLast SlideNext SlideSince Game 6 of the Easter Conference semifinals against Philadelphia, Leonard hasn’t been at his best offensively, at least efficiency-wise, shooting 43.5 percent in his past four games.But when the Raptors have absolutely needed him — in the fourth quarter of Game 7 against Philadelphia and in the fourth quarter and overtimes of Game 3 against Milwaukee — he delivered.Leonard scored 19 points in the fourth quarter and two overtimes, including eight points in the second overtime. He had a dunk to give Toronto a 108-105 lead, then a steal and dunk to extend Toronto’s advantage to 112-109 and then a driving bank shot to make it 114-110. Two more free throws accounted for the final two points of the game.GET OUT THE WAY! pic.twitter.com/ZClji2sdai— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) May 20, 2019It was his 10th game with at least 30 points in his team’s first 15 playoff games, tying him for third with such games in the past 20 seasons, trailing only Amar’e Stoudemire and LeBron James.Raptors president Masai Ujiri gambled when he traded for Leonard last summer. In 2017-18, Leonard played just nine games and wanted out of San Antonio. Ujiri took a chance on a player who will become a free agent this summer in hopes that he and the Raptors can convince Leonard to re-sign.They accommodated Leonard this season, sitting him out in back-to-backs and playing him in just 60 of 82 games with the belief that he would be healthy and rested for the playoffs. And for games like this.“We started with a plan that we thought was really sensible because he hadn’t played in like a year or something like that or played very little in the whole season beforehand,” Nurse said. “So we trimmed his minutes. We trimmed his games. We left him out of back-to-backs. “You guys have heard his famous line that he said: these first 82 games are just practice. I thought we were going to see another gear out of this guy, and I think the load management and all that kind of stuff helped. And we’ll see.”After the game, Leonard said he’s “enjoying my time” and “just putting it all together” and “remembering where I was last year. Pretty much just enjoying the moment.”Now, Leonard might not be 100 percent. After a layup in the first quarter, he favored his left leg and looked like he was in pain other times.“I’m good,” He said. “I’m just going to keep fighting. … Fifty-two minutes and it’s the playoffs. You definitely feel. When you play 30 minutes, you feel it. Just got to not worry about it and get my treatment and move on to the next one.”Raptors forward Pascal Siakam had a chance to extend Toronto’s lead to 98-94 with seven seconds left in the fourth quarter, but he missed two free throws, leading to Khris Middleton’s overtime-forcing putback.After the game, Leonard told Siakam, “I damn near played an hour tonight. He was like ‘My bad ’Whi. I’ll make the free throws next time.”The missed free throws though provided another memorable playoff performance by Leonard and another example of why he’s still a top-five player.Follow USA TODAY Sports’ Jeff Zillgitt on Twitter @JeffZillgitt.AutoplayShow ThumbnailsShow CaptionsLast SlideNext Slide