For the second time in four seasons, the Toronto Raptors are headed to the Eastern Conference final.
While the Raptors won’t have to deal with playoff nemesis LeBron James this time, they will face a tough task in controlling Milwaukee Bucks All-Star Giannis Antetokounmpo and the rest of the NBA’s highest-scoring offense.
Of course, Toronto will counter with Kawhi Leonard.
He hit the game-winning buzzer-beater Sunday to help Toronto edge Philadelphia 92-90 in Game 7 of its Eastern Conference semifinal series, setting up a showdown between the East’s top teams during the regular season.
Leonard’s shot bounced around the rim four times before dropping through the basket.
“It was great,” Leonard said. “That’s something I never experienced before, Game 7, a game-winning shot. It was a blessing to be able to get to that point and make that shot and feel that moment.”
Leonard and the Raptors will have a few hours to enjoy it; the conference final begin Wednesday night in Milwaukee. In its only other conference final appearance, Toronto lost to LeBron James and Cleveland in six games in 2016.
The Raptors are well aware of the challenge ahead.
Toronto guard Kyle Lowry said the Bucks have been “pretty dominant” in winning eight of nine postseason games — including the past four straight.
“They’ve got a lot of weapons and they’re pretty deep,” Lowry said. “They shoot the ball as well as anybody in the NBA and then they’ve got the one-man fast break in Giannis.”
The Bucks beat the Raptors three times in four regular-season meetings. Lowry was injured when Toronto won 123-116 at Milwaukee on Jan.5.
“We know we’ve got a tough task at hand,” Lowry said. “We have to prepare for it and get ready to go.”
Toronto coach Nick Nurse said the Bucks present challenges his team hasn’t faced in eliminating Orlando and Philadelphia in the first two rounds.
“It’s a little different style that we’re going to see,” Nurse said. “We’re going to have to adjust to that really quickly, obviously, and forget about how happy we are pretty quickly because it’s a hungry team. It’s a very deep team, a very good team. We’re going to have to continue to grow and we’re going to have to play better.”
Leonard scored 41 points on 16-of-39 shooting in Game 7 against Philadelphia. He topped 30 points five times in the series and averaged 34.7 points overall.
Nurse said Leonard has been playing at an “elite level” in the postseason. Toronto center Marc Gasol agrees with his coach.
Leonard “can create a shot out of pretty much nothing,” Gasol said. “He’s a mismatch all around.”
In Antetokounmpo, the Bucks have a similar matchup nightmare for Toronto.
The Raptors will need contributions for everyone, including Lowry — who briefly left Game 7 because of a sprained left thumb but returned and played the entire second half.
“I couldn’t really pass the ball and grip the ball, but that doesn’t matter,” Lowry said. “I’m fine.”
Milwaukee has been resting since eliminating Boston in Game 5 on Wednesday.
Toronto, which used only seven players on Sunday, will not practice Monday, giving players some extra rest.
They may need it to derail the surging Bucks.