Basketball / NBA

Raptors push Bucks to brink with third straight victory

AP

Kawhi Leonard arrived in Toronto thinking he could pick up another championship to go with the one he already has.

One more victory and he’ll play for another ring. And dominant performances like he put up Thursday night are a big reason why.

Leonard scored 35 points and the Raptors beat the Milwaukee Bucks 105-99 to take a 3-2 lead in the Eastern Conference finals.

“I’m not afraid of the moment,” Leonard said. “This is what I work out for in the summer. I’m just trying to win. It’s a matter of me being aggressive and don’t shy away from anything.”

Leonard was the NBA Finals MVP when San Antonio won the championship in 2014. And he’s capping off his first season in Toronto after requesting a trade from the Spurs with quite a playoff run.

It includes the first buzzer-beater to win a Game 7 — a shot that took four bounces off the rim to knock out Philadelphia in the conference semifinals. And he has continued to dominate in the conference finals.

Leonard showed no obvious signs of the leg soreness that bothered him in Toronto’s victories in the previous two games, hitting the 30-point mark for the fourth time in the series. He had a career-high nine assists, made five 3-pointers and grabbed seven rebounds.

New father Fred VanVleet scored 21 points, hitting seven 3s . Kyle Lowry added 17 as the Raptors put themselves in position to advance to the NBA Finals for the first time. A victory at home Saturday would set up a matchup with two-time defending champion Golden State.

The Raptors battled out of an early 14-point hole, then got 15 points from Leonard in the fourth quarter to send the top-seeded Bucks to their first three-game losing streak of the season.

“He has been unbelievable in the playoffs with the Spurs as well,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said. “I can only say that he’s been really good. He gets stronger as the fourth wears on. He wants the ball and he wants to make the plays and he seems to be making the right plays.

“You’re almost shocked when he pulls up at 15 feet (4.6 meters) and it doesn’t go in. He’s playing at both ends.”

Giannis Antetokounmpo had 24 points for Milwaukee.

“We’re not going to fold,” he said. “Come on, man. Best team in the league, man. We’re not going to fold. We’re going to go in and give it everything we’ve got. We can’t fold. We’re going to come back to Milwaukee being (ticked).”

Eric Bledsoe scored 20 and Malcolm Brogdon added 18 points and 11 rebounds in his return to the starting lineup.

“It’s first to four. We’ve got to go to Toronto, get a game. I think the group will be ready,” Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said.

The Raptors were clinging to a two-point lead in the closing minute after Khris Middleton drove around Leonard on the baseline for a layup.

Toronto was initially called for a shot-clock violation when Leonard missed a fadeaway jumper with 35 seconds left. That got overturned by a replay review, and Brook Lopez was called for a foul, instead, for bumping Marc Gasol after he retrieved the loose ball.

Gasol hit both free throws to make it 100-97. Another replay review went in Toronto’s favor when officials determined a ball went out of bounds off Brogdon with 26.8 seconds left. Brogdon pulled his hand away, thinking his dribble had gone off Pascal Siakam’s foot.

Siakam then drove for a dunk, making it 102-97, and the Raptors hung on from there.

In other NBA news, Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden got the most votes, and Damian Lillard and Kemba Walker also were big winners when the All-NBA teams were announced.

Those guards can cash in with supermax contracts based on their selections to one of the three All-NBA teams that were announced Thursday.

LeBron James also was voted to the third team, tying the NBA record with his 15th All-NBA selection.

Rounding out the first team were Stephen Curry, Paul George and Nikola Jokic, who was Denver’s first All-NBA selection since Carmelo Anthony in 2010.

Antetokounmpo and Harden were unanimous selections, receiving all 100 votes from a panel of writers and broadcasters who had to choose two guards, two forwards and one center for each of the three teams.

Walker was the final selection but all that matters is that he made it. By doing so, he became eligible to receive a five-year contract extension worth about $221 million from the Hornets if he opts to stay in Charlotte.