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.
Fred VanVleet, whose son was born Monday, 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 and it doesn’t go in. He’s playing at both ends.”
Giannis Antetokounmpo had 24 points for Milwaukee hours after being announced as a unanimous first-team, All-NBA selection.
“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.
Milwaukee was leading 81-79 with about 8 1/2 minutes left when Leonard nailed back-to-back 3-pointers . He hit two free throws before Siakam threw down a put-back dunk to make it 89-81.
The Bucks tied it at 93-all with 2:44 left on a 3-pointer by Lopez. VanVleet answered with one of his own before Antetokounmpo threw down an alley-oop dunk to cut it to 96-95 with just over two minutes remaining.
He was subbed out with 1:12 left in the game after twisting his ankle, but checked back in with 35 seconds to go.
Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers got sucked into a beer chugging contest, and it didn’t go that well for him.
Teammate David Bakhtiari had no trouble downing three cups when he was shown on the video board. The camera panned to Rodgers and he could only finish about half of one, drawing scorn from some fans.
Brewers star Christian Yelich had no trouble chugging one later in the game.
Raptors: Lowry has 1,126 points in 66 playoff games for Toronto, surpassing DeMar DeRozan (1,117) as the franchise’s postseason scoring leader.
Bucks: Brogdon started all 64 games he played in during the regular season, before missing basically all of the first two rounds because of a heel injury. With Brogdon back in the lineup, Nikola Mirotic came off the bench.
Game 6 is at Toronto on Saturday.