Kawhi Leonard squatted and watched as his moon shot from the corner bounced off the rim an agonizing once, twice, three times, then four before finally dropping through the hoop.
Leonard, acquired last summer for moments exactly like this, scored at the buzzer high over the outstretched hand of Joel Embiid and from in front of Toronto’s bench, lifting the Raptors to a thrilling 92-90 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers — and into the Eastern Conference Finals for just the second time in franchise history.
“It was great,” Leonard said. “That’s something I’ve never experienced before, Game 7, game-winning shot. It was a blessing to be able to get to that point and make that shot and feel that moment. It’s something I can look back on in my career.”
Leonard had never experienced it because it had never happened. According to the NBA’s Twitter account, it was the first buzzer-beater in a Game 7 in NBA history.
The normally stoic Leonard, who finished with 41 points, looked to the Scotiabank Arena rafters and let out a roar as the shot fell, and he was swarmed by his teammates.
“I’m a guy that acts like I’ve been there before. So probably the last time you’ve seen me scream was when we won,” Leonard said, in reference to San Antonio winning the 2014 Finals — Leonard was named MVP.
“So whenever it’s like a moment where I haven’t really experienced, I’ll probably try to give some emotion, show some emotion, and let it just come out. Tonight was one of those nights.”
It was indeed. And now the Raptors face the Bucks, who dispatched Boston in five games, in the Eastern Conference Finals, beginning on Wednesday in Milwaukee.
Serge Ibaka had one of the best post-season performances of his career in finishing with 17 points and eight rebounds, while Pascal Siakam finished with 11 points and 11 boards, and Kyle Lowry had 10 points despite playing most of the night with a taped left thumb he sprained early in the second quarter.
“I fell, it popped out, I popped it back in,” Lowry said. “It kind of was loose, I was just trying to figure out how to pass the ball, I couldn’t really pass the ball and grip the ball, but that doesn’t matter, I’m fine, I played, we won the game, we’ll get some rest and try heal it up as fast as possible.”
Marc Gasol grabbed 11 rebounds to go with seven points.
Embiid led his team with 21 points, but broke into tears after Leonard connected, Gasol consoling the Sixers big man. All five Philadelphia starters finished in double digits. JJ Redick added 17 points and Jimmy Butler had 16.
The see-saw series had some wild momentum shifts, with a couple of blowouts on both sides. The Raptors set a franchise record for margin of victory in the post-season with their 125-89 Game 5 rout, but rather than comfortably close the series in six games in Philly, they dropped a 112-101 decision in Thursday’s Game 6 at Wells Fargo Center.
Sunday’s game certainly wasn’t pretty, particularly by post-season standards.
The Raptors shot 21 per cent in the first quarter, and the No. 1 three-point shooting team in the league since the Gasol trade in February, might as well have been masquerading as the worst. They missed their first eight three-point attempts before Ibaka finally connected a minute into the second. They shot 23 per cent overall from three. The Sixers weren’t much better at 33 per cent.
Neither team led by double digits, and when Gasol scored on a floater at 9:28 in the third quarter, Toronto took its biggest lead of the game — nine points. The Sixers responded with a 16-0 run to go up by seven, but the Raptors replied and Ibaka’s layup with 7.7 seconds left in the third gave Toronto a 67-64 lead with one quarter left.
A Scotiabank Arena crowd, that included former Raptors point guard Jose Calderon, was on its feet for most of the final nailbiting 12 minutes that saw Leonard score five straight points to put Toronto up by five with 4:48 to play.
Toronto’s defence locked down in the final couple of minutes. Leonard broke a tie with a long two-pointer, then Lowry stole the ball off Tobias Harris and Siakam finished with a layup that had the ear-splitting crowd roaring their approval and put Toronto up by four heading into the final minute.
“We just were doing it all,” coach Nick Nurse said. “We were pressuring the ball, we were corralling the right guys for a split second with two, we were either rotating or hustling back to our own so just because we put two on the ball it didn’t mean something was automatically open. And then we rebounded it after we contested.
“Those possessions defensively were awesome.”
A free throw by Butler and two from Embiid with 12.1 seconds made it a one-point game. Leonard was fouled and missed one of his free throws and then Butler sprinted downcourt for the tying layup with 4.2 seconds to play setting up Leonard’s heroics.
One year removed from a season that saw him sit all but nine games with a serious quadriceps injury, Leonard has been brilliant in the post-season. The 27-year-old, who’s said he couldn’t bring himself to even watch last season’s playoffs, reflected on his year so far with the Raptors.
“It’s been great,” Leonard said. “After the regular season was over, I was proud of myself and what I had accomplished throughout the regular season. Just being able to (play), without what I went through last year with the injury, just believing in myself and knowing, taking my time and I was able to get healthy and feel right.”
On the final thrilling play, Leonard took an inbound from Gasol, dribbled four times before shooting. He connected. The arena exploded.
“It’s tough,” Butler said. “Nobody likes to lose, not that way.”
The Jumbotron panned to the hundreds of bundled-up, celebrating fans watching the game outside the arena in Maple Leaf Square on a chilly 6 C night.
A loss would’ve been deemed a big disappointment for a squad that team president Masai Ujiri rebuilt specifically with a big but short-term goal in mind — a berth in the NBA Finals — acquiring Leonard and Danny Green for much-loved DeMar DeRozan last summer, and then acquiring Gasol for Jonas Valanciunas at the trade deadline.
Among the questions that hinge on these playoffs is the future of Leonard.
The Raptors shot just 5-for-24 in the first quarter, including 0-for-8 from behind the arc, yet still managed to build a seven-point lead when Green poked the ball away from Embiid and finish with a dunk eight minutes into the game. Leonard led the way with eight points in the quarter, and Toronto took an 18-13 lead into the second.
A three-pointer by Harris capped a 14-2 Philly run in the second that gave the visitors a four-point lead. But the Raptors fired back with an 11-3 run punctuated by a Lowry three-point play that saw Toronto head into the locker-room at halftime up 44-40.
The Raptors had played in five previous Game 7s, most recently in 2016 when Lowry scored 35 points to help Toronto beat Miami to move on to the conference finals.
The Raptors lost 88-87 to Philadelphia in the 2001 conference semifinals when a Vince Carter jump shot at the buzzer bounced off the rim. The Sixers went on to play Milwaukee in the conference final.