TORONTO (REUTERS) - The Toronto Raptors made history the hard way on Saturday (May 25) night, reaching the National Basketball Association Finals for the first time after rallying past the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks 100-94 in Game 6.
Trailing by 15 points with 2:18 remaining in the third quarter, the Raptors scored the final 10 points of the frame. Then, with Kawhi Leonard on the bench for the first 3:30 of the fourth quarter, they took a two-point lead.
He returned, and the game was in good hands. He finished with 27 points - seven in the fourth quarter - a career-best 17 rebounds and seven assists.
"Just one possession at a time," Leonard said, describing the comeback. "We kept fighting the whole game."
The Raptors, who lost the first two games of the Eastern Conference finals before winning four straight, will open the NBA Finals at home on Thursday (May 30) night against the Golden State Warriors. The Western Conference champions, who swept the Portland Trail Blazers 4-0, are huge favourites - going for their third straight title and fourth in five years.
"It's still surreal to me right now," Leonard said. "But this is what we've been striving for all season. It's not over yet."
Pascal Siakam added 18 points, Kyle Lowry had 17 and Fred VanVleet scored 14 for the Raptors.
"Kawhi stays level-headed all the time," Lowry said. "He brought that pedigree with him."
Raptors coach Nick Nurse added: "He inspired us tonight with monster rebounds.
"It wasn't going well for us, it was kind of a frustrating night... But we kept playing."
Lowry has been through many play-off failures in seven years with the Raptors.
"It means a lot to me," he said. "We beat a really good team in Milwaukee.
"But I'm not satisfied yet. Our goal is to win the NBA championship."
Giannis Antetokounmpo had 21 points and 11 rebounds for the Bucks, who had the NBA's best record (60-22) during the regular season. Brook Lopez added 18 points with nine rebounds and three blocks, Khris Middleton had 14 points, Ersan Ilyasova 13, and Malcolm Brogdon and George Hill 10 each.
"This hurts," Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer said. "But what they did in the play-offs tonight against a really good Toronto Raptors team, and to get to the Eastern Conference finals, the regular season, a special season for us. We feel like we're just getting started."
Antetokounmpo said: "We have to get better as a team and get better as individuals. This is the beginning of a long journey for us."
Middleton said: "We had a great season, we just fell short of our goals."
Antetokounmpo was asked about Leonard's play-off experience.
"You can tell from the way he plays," he said of the 2014 Finals MVP. "He has so much patience, he knows what we wants to do, he has faith in himself and he has been in the Finals before."
Serge Ibaka's dunk tied the game at 78 apiece with 10:31 to play in the game, and Siakam's jumper and VanVleet's three-pointer capped a 10-0 run to give Toronto a five-point lead.
A key play was Lowry's steal and his hand-off to Leonard, who dunked to increase the lead to eight with 6:46 remaining.
The Bucks came back with a 7-0 run to pull within one point on Antetokounmpo's lay-up with 5:19 to play.
Marc Gasol's three-pointer had Toronto ahead by four, but Lopez reduced it to two with a lay-up at 3:29. The Raptors went up by five on Siakam's tip-in with 2:06 to play.
Lopez made two free throws with 29.6 seconds to play, cutting the lead to three, but Milwaukee never had the ball within one possession in the closing minutes. Siakam and Leonard finished the game off with free throws.
The Bucks were 6-for-9 from three-point range to earn a 31-18 lead after one quarter.
Ilyasova's three-pointer with 7:48 to play in the first half put the Bucks ahead 38-23.
VanVleet's three-pointer with 2:28 to play in the half cut the lead to seven.
Ibaka's dunk with 1:32 left had the Raptors within five points, and VanVleet's jumper reduced the lead to three with 1:07 left.
The Bucks scored the final four points of the half to lead 50-43.
Middleton's second three-pointer in three minutes had the lead at 14 with 3:46 left in the third. The Bucks worked the lead to 15 before the Raptors went on a 10-0 run, with Leonard scoring eight. The Bucks led 76-71 after three quarters.