Toronto: As the clock reached zero and the buzzer sounded with 20,917 fans inside Scotiabank Arena and millions more watching around the world, Leonard’s 15-foot fadeaway over the outstretched arms of Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid hit the rim four times before falling in and giving the Raptors a 92-90 victory and a spot in the Eastern Conference finals.
Kawhi Leonard isn’t emotionless. You just don’t see it from him often. “I’m a guy that acts like I’ve been there before,” Leonard said after making one of the biggest shots of his career and one of the biggest in Toronto Raptors franchise history.
But Leonard hadn’t been in this situation before. No player in NBA history had. In the history of Game 7s in the NBA playoffs — that’s 135 games — Leonard is the first to make a buzzer-beating, game-winning shot.
“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,” Leonard said. “Tonight was one of those nights.”
Was it ever.
— NBA TV (@NBATV) May 13, 2019
Leonard, who scored a game-high 41 points, watched the ball fall through the net in a baseball catcher’s crouch right in front of the Raptors bench.
He was mobbed by his teammates. He screamed. He celebrated with his teammates.
No matter how long you’ve been around, you’ve never seen it all.
A buzzer-beater in Game 7. Raw joy from Leonard. Heartbreaking tears from Embiid who was consoled by Toronto’s Marc Gasol, delaying his celebration to comfort Embiid.
“He hit a tough one,” Sixers forward Jimmy Butler said. “You tip your hat to that. He’s an incredible player. We know it. Y’all know it. Ain’t too much more you can say about it.”
But there is.
The sequence — from when Gasol inbounded the basketball to Leonard — took about seven seconds. There were just 4.2 seconds left when Toronto called timeout after Butler’s layup tied the score at 90.
The ball left Leonard’s hand with 0.3 seconds left — he barely got the shot off in time — and the game clock expired with the ball in the air.
— NBA TV (@NBATV) May 13, 2019
“Looks like it is going in the whole time to me,” Raptors coach Nick Nurse said.
But the shot was short. Leonard put some arc on it to get over Embiid’s hand.
“I just knew that I had to shoot it high,” Leonard said.
Not sure anyone can say they thought it was going in for sure.
It took nearly three seconds from the ball leaving Leonard’s hands to fall through the rim. Once the ball hit the rim for the first time, it took more than a second — it seemed so much longer as players, fans and reporters fixated on the trajectory — to bounce around the rim three more times and go in.
Leonard got the shooter’s roll.
“It ended up getting a soft touch and going in,” Leonard said.
It’s a play Nurse likes to call. Sometimes Kyle Lowry is an option as he cuts toward the in-bounder. But Gasol had his eyes on Leonard once the referee handed him the ball.
The Raptors ran the play against the Orlando Magic in the first round, and Leonard took a shot immediately after getting the ball. He learned from that experience.
“I just remembered that moment and knew that I had time to pump fake or take a dribble,” Leonard said. “He (Nurse) drew up the play and, remembering that moment, I knew I had some time to try and get some space rather than just catch and shoot the ball.”
It was Leonard’s 39th shot of the game, the most he has ever attempted in his NBA career.
Leonard isn’t a gunner or chucker. High-volume shooting is not part of his offensive repertoire. In his eight-year career, he has never taken more than 20 shots per game during the regular season and never more than 20 a game during the playoffs prior to this postseason.
Efficiency is his game — high shooting percentage from the field and the foul line.
But Game 7 called for something different. It called for Leonard to take as many shots as necessary to get the Raptors past Philadelphia.
“I didn’t want to leave any shots in my mind,” Leonard said. “This could have been my last game for the season. I would have to wait five months to put up another in a game. I wasn’t going to worry about makes or misses. Try to will us to a win.”
Through three quarters, he was 10-of-30 from the field. But that efficiency returned in the fourth quarter when he scored 15 points on 6-for-9 shooting.
Leonard was the best player in the series, was the best player in Game 7, and may be the best player in the playoffs regardless of conference, averaging 31.8 points, 8.5 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.3 steals and shooting 53.9% from the field and 40.8% from 3-point range.
He has scored at least 30 points seven times in the playoffs and scored at least 40 twice against the Sixers.
The Raptors aren’t in the conference finals for the second time in franchise history without Leonard, who is in his first season with Toronto after the San Antonio Spurs traded him last summer.
“It’s amazing to me that whether we’re in the huddle or in the locker room or in the film room, he’s always locked in on what the coaching staff is saying,” Nurse said. “That is an interesting thing about him. He’s very coachable. He’s focused and pays attention. That’s a pretty big statement to say that.
“When you get to his play here in the playoffs, it’s been at an elite level, a determined level, and tonight I thought it was awesome at both ends. That’s again, his uniqueness. Not only can he get you 30 (points) and anywhere upwards from that, but there’s moments when he can just decide you’re not scoring either or, ‘I’m going to take it from you’ or something like that. That’s a pretty amazing thing.”