That the ball found its way to Leonard beyond the arc seems fateful in retrospect. Leonard was 0-of-5 from three on the night and had missed 13 in a row. The baseline jumper he’d just misfired on seemed to frustrate him. The Raptors were putting such an immense load on Leonard’s shoulders with little shooting support, and he would need that weapon from there. It’s impossible to know how these things go, if Leonard having a wide-open look with time to set helped him find his release, if he would have hit his next three anyway, if one fewer repetition would have led him to discovering the necessary release point on his game-winner. Whatever the butterfly effect that followed, Leonard stuck the three and the Raptors were within one.
Not long after, Simmons came down with the defensive rebound on a VanVleet miss in transition. Simmons’ feet had barely touched the floor when Lowry’s hands were in his pouch, prying the ball free and quickly firing a behind-the-back bounce-pass for Ibaka that put the Raptors ahead.
“I really was impressed with his defence. He was being so alert and aggressive on his switch-outs, every time you saw an opening coming, there he was,” Nick Nurse said. “Obviously, the huge steal. I think we had back-to-back shot-clock violations and that was getting ready to be a third one and he got to it just in the nick of time. Again, he played a lot of minutes, I think he played the whole second half and he was great down the stretch defensively.”
It probably warrants mentioning, too, that Lowry’s left thumb popped out in the first half. He popped it back in, had it taped up, and returned to the game having missed only a few minutes.
There are countless moments like this throughout a game, and you could probably find a few for every player in the game. Lowry is special. What he brings is not so much indefinable as it is ethereal. The last time the Raptors played a Game 7 – in 2016 against the Miami Heat – Lowry was a giant. In the time since, his role and his game have changed. Lowry now mostly exists between made baskets, helping as a scorer where opportunities allow and doing what he can to make modest point totals confusing next to his real impact on the game. In the macro, this can get lost until you look at the resounding, consistent impact stats. It is a long season, nuance is not long for blowouts and picking up what’s going on before or after a shot goes up requires focus or, on days like Sunday, such an outsized marginal value.
As Lowry’s game has shifted to accommodate his age, the roster shifting and growing around him and the enormity of Leonard’s presence, usage and skill set, he has become those margins. He was, naturally, the only starter with a positive plus-minus in a two-point victory where only seven players saw the floor. This, despite a 4-for-13 shooting night, good for 10 points, six rebounds and six assists in 39 minutes. Those numbers don’t pop. He didn’t shoot well, at all. Yet if it weren’t for a half-dozen or more of the type of plays that have come to define Lowry as a star beyond his box score – helping limit Philadelphia’s own scoring so the Raptors could slog out their own offence, stealing extra possessions on offence, surreptitiously taking them from the 76ers – the biggest moment for the team’s biggest star may not have come.
One – Clutch: Norman Powell surmised after Kawhi Leonard hit a game-winning three in Game 4 of this series that Leonard was the second coming of Kobe Bryant. Well, now that’s two Kobe performances in four games, as Leonard drained a baseline jumper falling out of bounds with a 7-foot-3 Joel Embiid charging at him with all his might. The shot danced around for what seemed like a lifetime, before mercifully dropping through the friendly rims at Scotiabank Arena to decide the series. Leonard then sank into a mob of teammates, and even the most stoic player in the league couldn’t hold back his emotions.
“I’m a guy that acts like I’ve been there before,” said Leonard. “So probably the last time you’ve seen me scream is when we won [the NBA championship is San Antonio in 2014]. Whenever it’s a moment that I haven’t really experienced, I probably try to give and show some emotion and let it just come out.”
He roared. He was mobbed as the entire drama played out directly in front of the Raptors bench.
“That’s something I’ve never experienced before — a Game 7, game-winning shot — so it was a blessing to get that point, make that shot and feel that moment,” Leonard said. “It’s something I can look back on in my career.”
His teammates don’t feel the need to wait that long. They know history when they see it.
“That was crazy,” said Pascal Siakam. “By far [my] best moment in the NBA, just watching that.”
Said Kyle Lowry: “It was cool, all the fans, the team, everybody around. It was crazy… And like a sigh of relief, like a ‘whoof.’ It was great. It was one of those moments where it’s like like a real-life game-winner, Game 7, like count it down when you’re back home and everyone was celebrating like that. Awesome moment.”
Said Fred VanVleet: “From that angle where we were at, it didn’t look like it was going in at all at first. It looked like it was a little to the left. Once it sat on the rim for a second, we started to wait for it to just drop. Once it hit the rim once and twice it was like, ‘This is Kawhi. This is gonna fall.’ And it did. It was just like a movie moment where you’re waiting for the ball to go down. Just a special moment right there for Kawhi and our team.”
The 92-90 win Toronto advances out of the second round for the second time in franchise history, the last being in2016 when they lost to Cleveland in six games. Perhaps just as important, the win avoids questions of ‘what’s next’ for at least two more weeks, maybe longer.
Nobody had been in that situation before. On Sunday, Leonard became the first player in NBA postseason history to hit a game-winning buzzer-beating in a Game 7. Michael Jordan is the only other player to do it in a winner-take-all playoff game, hitting the go-ahead bucket in Game 5 of Chicago’s opening-round series against the Cavaliers in 1989, before the first round was extended to best-of-seven.
With their 92-90 win, and the shot that made it possible, the Raptors advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals for the second time in franchise history, where they’ll face the NBA-best Milwaukee Bucks beginning on Wednesday.
It came almost exactly 18 years after Vince Carter missed a similar shot over 76ers forward Tyrone Hill, also in the seventh game of the second round against Philadelphia – a moment that has haunted the Raptors and their fans for nearly two decades.
You probably remember where you were when Carter’s jumper clanked off the back of the rim that Sunday evening in 2001, same as you will probably remember this Sunday in 2019, when Leonard exorcised Toronto’s demons. He didn’t just save the Raptors’ season and make team history in the process, he gave us a truly iconic moment in sport.
Even his teammates, many of who have been around the league long enough to possess their own collection of memorable moments, admitted this was something entirely unique.
“That one, I haven’t seen that one,” said Green, who came to Toronto with Leonard in the trade from San Antonio over the summer. He’s won a championship, watched Leonard earn Finals MVP, and played with future hall of famers in Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
Real life transcended fantasy on Sunday for a franchise that has been victimized in the postseason by shotmakers of Leonard’s caliber. The Raptors had never before employed one of those talents of their own. Now they do, and they rode him to the Eastern Conference finals, which begins Wednesday night in Milwaukee.
The matchup between the Raptors and Milwaukee Bucks will feature a fascinating chess match between two teams with exceptionally high basketball intelligence. But it will also be a collision of an unstoppable force and an immovable object. Decide for yourself which is Kawhi Leonard and which is Giannis Antetokounmpo. They rank No. 1 and No. 2 in postseason player efficiency rating, and have undoubtedly been the most consistent, dominant performers in this year’s playoffs.
Leonard’s heroics lifted the Raptors against Orlando and Philadelphia, but the Bucks aren’t a team easily beaten with a constant isolation attack by a single player — even Leonard. He is very likely to encounter a much more aggressive and unpredictable scheme against Milwaukee, which posted the NBA’s top-ranked defense, both in the regular season and playoffs. The Bucks’ peripatetic defense scrambles like crazy, and has no misgivings about pressuring a threat like Leonard with multiple bodies coming from anywhere and everyone on the floor. If that means putting the defense into rotation, so be it, because the Bucks are quick to react and long enough to recover lost ground in an instant.
Giannis Antetokounmpo of the Bucks and Kawhi Leonard of the Raptors will be center stage for the Eastern Conference finals. Rick Madonik/Toronto Star/Getty Images
The Raptors have been fond of saying that every postseason game tells a different story, but one common thread throughout Toronto’s playoff run has been its willingness to pass up open shots along the perimeter. Some of that can be attributed to the inherent unselfishness of players such as Lowry and Marc Gasol.
But against a Bucks defensive scheme in which Brook Lopez typically (though not always) begins each possession in the paint, early open jumpers will be available. Once that Bucks’ defense starts scrambling, an open Raptor can ill-afford to look a gift horse in the mouth when the ball is swung to him, because daylight in the half court is brief before shadows of the Bucks’ defenders descend on open space.
As a team, Toronto shot just 38 percent from the field, and 23 percent from three. Danny Green was quiet once again (1-of-3 from the field; zero threes). Fred VanVleet was a non-factor (0-for-5), playing mostly because Kyle Lowry had early foul trouble (and popped his thumb out and back in — again). Marc Gasol did a yeoman’s job on Joel Embiid, but he too was not finding it easy to hit shots (3-of-8 for seven, one made 3, and seven boards). Even the often electric Pascal Siakam looked stressed for most of it, going 4-of-11 with a few wild misses along the way for 11 points (plus 11 rebounds).
As the going got tough for Toronto, the Raptors three most seasoned players, Lowry, Serge Ibaka, and, of course, Kawhi, were the guys who carried the load. For Lowry it was the all-around play, as exemplified by an astounding third quarter run by the Raptors. In that frame, the Sixers looked like they were starting to take control, grinding out a seven point lead thanks to a 16-0 run. But then Lowry hit a driving lay-up, followed up a blocked VanVleet attempt by collecting the rebound and dishing it to Ibaka for the bucket, and then drew a customary charge. It didn’t put the Raptors in complete control, but it did remind them of who they were a little bit. Lowry would finish with 10-6-6 with a bad thumb.
Meanwhile in Ibaka, the Raptors had a guy willing to just play free and easy. Like night and day from his Game 6 performance, the Raptors big man took a pair of huge threes during his first run on the floor (to that point, the only 3s Toronto had made), and just kept going. Ibaka later hit another three on the move, while also playing huge on the glass — with four offensive boards — to finish his night with 17 points, eight rebounds, and three assists. Nick Nurse was hard-matching Gasol’s minutes with Embiid, but that didn’t mean Ibaka wasn’t a force defensively. He helped contain all of the Sixers quick forwards, and was active in the double-teams on the Sixers’ massive centre. When the Raptors were shutting down the Sixers for almost four minutes in the fourth — before Jimmy Butler’s late lay-up — Ibaka was out there like a menace.
After all the adjustments, all the matchups, all the lineup decisions, and it came down to the best guys, in a difficult game, under all the pressure, trying to beat the best guys. That was all. Before the game, Sixers coach Brett Brown offered some basketball wisdom, gleaned from his championship-winning and losing years in San Antonio. He said, “There’s always a point, especially in these games, that it is a defining moment. How do you react if you’re the one that’s on a 12-0 run, and how do you react if you’re the one that isn’t on the run? That’s a thing that interests me the most in regard to a team. It’s still is about the fabric of a team, and the character of a team, and the togetherness of a team to withstand or push forward.”
That was always the question: the fabric of this team, the trust, how a rookie coach could pull it together while dealing with load management, injuries, and everything else. In the great games, it’s about who can make the play with the pressure weighing down, with everything on the line. Everyone found out.
Rightly or wrongly, no Raptors game had ever felt like more might be riding on it. Team president Masai Ujiri blew up his comfortable upper-middle class playoff failures to take a swing at the superstar he had been waiting for. He had been waiting for years, because players like Kawhi Leonard are the rarest currency, the treasure you can almost never buy. Finally, Ujiri did it. He burned his bridge with the most beloved Raptor ever, by some measures, and the coach of the year, and he aimed higher. They all did.
And now they will play Milwaukee for the right to play for a championship. In Kawhi’s introductory press conference he was asked what he wanted out of his career, of his life, and he said, “Just being able to be healthy. That’s my No. 1 goal. Have a long-term career. To be able to be dominant wherever I land, and that’s about it. I want to win championships, and get in those record books.”
He was healthy here, and Kawhi and Raptors director of sports science Alex McKechnie worked together all year; McKechnie is considered elite, and he showed it. The Raptors can offer Kawhi an extra guaranteed year, towards that long career. He was dominant here, even while treating his 60 regular-season games like preparation and practice, and it paid off with his post-season.
And now they are four wins from an NBA final, despite the struggles of the series, despite Embiid, despite their own inability to always coalesce. The Raptors are still learning each other, still finding their shared purpose. They are still figuring out what they can truly trust.
But Game 7 is over, and in the toughest game of the season — the toughest game, for some of them, of their basketball lives — the Raptors won. Milwaukee will be difficult; playing every two days, starting Wednesday, will be difficult. This is not a young team, and the rotation will have to be extended to beat the Bucks. Giannis Antetokounmpo is the last guy left who might be better than Kawhi in the East. Might.
Where does Kawhi Leonard’s shot rank among the most dramatic of all-time? How will the Raptors fare against a well-rested Bucks team? Rod Black, Jack Armstrong and Leo Rautins weigh in with their thoughts on the thrilling finish between the Raptors and Sixers and look ahead to the Eastern Conference Finals against Milwaukee.
The Philadelphia 76ers made them work for this one right down to the final whistle.
And this time it wasn’t Vince Carter missing it at the buzzer as it was 18 years ago. This time it was Kawhi Leonard making it off a fall-away shot from just in front of the Raptors’ bench that bounced off the rim four times — one front rim, three back — before it dropped for the winner.
“We’ve seen that one a few times this year. I don’t think he’s made that one before tonight,” Raptors head coach Nick Nurse said. “Nice to see the scales balance out.”
“I think at first a lot of us were like, ‘Ah, it doesn’t look too good,’” Danny Green said of the game-winner. “Then it got one bounce and it was like, ‘OK.’ And then the second bounce it was ‘Oh (crap), we might have a chance here.’ It probably bounced four or five times. It seemed like it was 30 seconds, but probably took all of 0.8 seconds. But once it went in I think everyone was just ridiculously excited. The whole building. I think they’re still yelling out there.”
Green wasn’t exaggerating. The eruption at the sold-out Scotiabank Arena was deafening as Leonard was mobbed by teammates, most of them just a foot from where he watched the shot fall, celebrating the 92-90 shocker.
Joel Embiid walked off the court in tears, his 21-point night and 11 rebounds not good enough to see his team onto the next round.
“It’s a tough way to lose, but what a tremendous series,” Sixers head coach Brett Brown said.
We tend to talk about Leonard as an emotionless curiosity; I’ve personally suggested the man has no discernible physical charisma. But you have to Kawhi-laugh at the drama and catharsis he delivered to the city of Toronto: the tremendous arc, the nauseating four bounces on the rim, the blue-tongued wail as he is nearly submerged by his teammates along the sideline. I’m still not sure whether he exudes much charisma on the court, but watching his game-winner again and again, it doesn’t matter: All of the color is within the lines; in the structure of his game and the lines and angles that he creates from.
An outstretched hand begets other outstretched hands, and Raptors fans filed out of the Scotiabank Arena hugging and high-fiving family, strangers, cops—from the arena, to Jurassic Park outside, to Union Station and beyond. We still have no idea whether this is enough for Kawhi, whether sending an entire city into a frenzy, having hordes of people march along the streets chanting your name, is enough for him to want to make this city his home. But in this moment, it sure feels like it is. That’s what happens when you find someone capable of turning nearly two decades of self-fulfilling prophecies into dust. You throw your hands up and start believing things might actually be different this time—that the Raptors might make the Finals, that Kawhi might actually stay. Because in the moment, why wouldn’t they?
“We ran a similar play in the [Orlando] Magic [first-round] series, and I ended up just catching and shooting the ball,” Leonard said. “Embiid was guarding me. He’s taller and longer than me, so I ended up finding a spot that I work on, and I just knew that I had to shoot it high.”
The final horn sounded as the ball reached its apex before caroming off the rim several times. As it did, Leonard squatted in the right corner, tongue between pursed lips, awaiting the shot’s fate. After the ball bounced through the iron, Leonard rose with his arms in the air and let out a scream before being rushed by teammates.
Kobe Bryant breaks the performance of Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard against the Orlando Magic in the first round of the playoffs. Watch on ESPN+
“It was crazy,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said. “It was one of those moments where it’s just like a real-life game winner, Game 7, like, count it down when you’re back home, and everyone was celebrating like that. It was a pretty awesome moment.”
The decisive shot was the final basket of a historic night for Leonard, who scored a game-high 41 points, and only the second buzzer-beater in a winner-take-all game in the postseason, after Michael Jordan’s iconic shot to defeat the Cleveland Cavaliers in the first round of the 1989 Eastern Conference playoffs. Leonard’s 39 shot attempts on Sunday are second to only Elgin Baylor’s 40 in 1962 as the most in an NBA Game 7.
The Raptors next travel to Milwaukee for the Eastern Conference finals. They face the top-seeded Bucks in Game 1 on Wednesday.
In what was one of the best displays of defensive basketball played here this season, the Raptors got a buzzer-beating basket from Kawhi Leonard to beat the Philadelphia 76ers 92-90 and win the Eastern Conference semifinal four games to three. They’ll take on the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern final.
Toronto forced a shot-clock violation, a turnover and a missed shot in three crucial possessions in the final two minutes in one of the Raptors’ best crucial stretches of defence in the post-season.
When Leonard, who took 39 shots to score 41 points in a gritty performance, could only split free throws with 10 seconds left, it led to a Jimmy Butler layup that tied it with 4.2 seconds left.
Leonard calmly took the ensuing inbounds pass, dribbled right in front of the Raptors bench and watched as his shot bounced on the rim — before pandemonium set in.
For Nurse, the cumulative experiences gleaned in more than two decades coaching on both sides of the Atlantic left him philosophical about the biggest NBA game he’d ever handled.
“I just think that it goes like this: When 20 years ago, when I’m coaching, it was the world to me. I’m 25 (years old) … I’m coaching the Birmingham Bullets versus the London Towers, it was the world to me,” he said before the drama unfolded in a rollicking Scotiabank Arena.
Leonard: I ended up catching it and just trying to get to a space so I could get the shot off. Embiid was guarding me. But he’s taller and longer than me, so I ended up finding a spot that I like … that I work on. I knew I had to shoot it high. A couple of possessions before that I had the same kind of shot from 3 and it ended up coming short. I had to put it up even higher than that.
Great defense, bad offense: As atrocious as the Sixers’ offense was — they missed their first nine shots and were 2-for-13 from the field late in the first quarter — Toronto’s offense was as equally ineffective: 5-for-24 from the field and 0-for-8 on 3-pointers in the first quarter.
The Raptors actually won this game shooting a lower percentage than the Sixers from the field (38.2% to 43.1%) and on 3-pointers (23.3% to 33.3%). Toronto also attempted 11 fewer free throws.
But the Raptors collected 16 offensive rebounds and forced the Sixers into 15 turnovers, leading to more shot attempts and makes. Raptors coach Nick Nurse was concerned about Philadelphia’s rebounding the entire series, but his team came through on the glass when needed.
During a key stretch late in the fourth quarter, the Sixers had a turnover, missed shot and a 24-second shot clock violation as the Raptors grabbed an 89-85 lead.
Kawhi carries Toronto to the Eastern Conference Finals! pic.twitter.com/lEeXsbuuDW
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) May 13, 2019
The optimized version of the Raptors only appeared in Games 1 and 5 this series. Those games saw Kawhi Leonard looking like the best player on earth, Marc Gasol handling Embiid on the defensive end, and Kawhi’s supporting cast (Pascal Siakam in Game 1 and Siakam, Kyle Lowry and Danny Green in Game 5) giving big-time contributions. Their other two wins were nasty, ugly, gut-it-out basketball games where neither team played particularly well, especially on the offensive end. Among the things, the Raptors needed to pull out this series win over the lower seed were various parts of Embiid’s body falling apart, whether it was from knee tendinitis, a virus or an upper respiratory infection. They also needed Tobias Harris missing open shots, and Ben Simmons looking like a wallflower half the time on offense, and Brett Brown’s offensive attack looking incredibly uninspired and uncreative, no worse than in the waning minutes of Game 7.
Does anyone really think that the Raptors, playing as they did for the majority of this series, would have been able to defeat a Sixers team with an Embiid that was 100 percent healthy and playing as he did in Game 3, starring in the role of two-way MVP?
But they won the series anyway.
You need to win games where you don’t play your best if you’re going to go far in the playoffs. That’s what the Raptors did against Philly.
Against the Bucks, though, they’ll need to play their best. They’ll need to figure a way to bottle up Giannis. They’ll need to get more consistent 3-point shooting. They’ll need to have Gasol and Lowry playing more aggressively on the offensive end. They’ll need to have Siakam not shrinking from the biggest moments as he did in Game 7. And alongside all that, they’ll need, of course, to have Kawhi looking like the best player on earth. There were several games during this series where the phrase “Jordanesque” was applied to Kawhi, and it didn’t even feel like hyperbole.
Do all that and the Raptors absolutely can make the Finals.
No matter what happens over the next couple weeks, Masai Ujiri’s gamble should be considered a massive, massive success. Less than one year ago, Ujiri traded franchise cornerstone DeMar DeRozan and tied the hopes and dreams of this long-suffering Raptors fan base to one year of soon-to-be free agent Kawhi Leonard. Ujiri knew he had plenty of talent on this team already – the rising Pascal Siakam, the aging Kyle Lowry – but not enough to win a title. Their championship window may only have a month left. Who knows where Kawhi will decide to spend the next chapter of his NBA career? If it’s, say, Los Angeles, or anywhere other than Toronto, then the Raptors will have to enter an abbreviated sort of rebuilding phase around Siakam. But Ujiri should be commended for going for it. If it doesn’t work long-term, he’ll be able to rebuild the team in his own image. But for this season, it has already worked out.