The Toronto Raptors had a lot on the line going into their second-round series with the Philadelphia 76ers last May.
Philadelphia did too, in fairness. The Sixers had also pushed their chips in, trading away coveted assets to acquire Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris mid-season and improve their chances of making a run at their first NBA championship in more than three decades. Still, with an exciting young core of Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, it probably wouldn’t be their last kick at the can. It may have been their first of many.
Toronto’s window to contend was considerably shorter. Kawhi Leonard was brought in as a mercenary to help them reach new heights. The Raptors hoped he would stay but knew there was a strong possibility his tenure would be brief.
They fired the winningest coach in franchise history and traded a couple of the team’s longest-serving and most beloved players – tough and, in some circles, unpopular decisions that Raptors president Masai Ujiri felt he had to make because good was no longer good enough.
They were going for it. You could feel the pressure to make the most of this run. Their toughest challenger, as it turned out, would be the 76ers.
With Embiid neutralized by injury, illness and Marc Gasol, Butler was fantastic for Philadelphia. But Leonard was playing at another level. The superstar forward had a historically dominant series. His 243 points were the most anyone had scored in a playoff series since Michael Jordan in the 1993 NBA Finals.
It was a competitive, back-and-forth showdown between two teams with title aspirations and loads of talent. The Sixers stole home-court advantage in Game 2 and took a 2-1 series lead with a decisive victory in Game 3. The Raptors responded by taking the next two before dropping Game 6 in Philly to set up a winner-take-all Game 7 in Toronto on May 12.
Neither team shot the ball well in Game 7. It was low scoring, grind-it-out basketball – exactly what you would expect given the stakes. The Raptors were up 67-64 going into the final quarter of the series. The lead changed hands 10 times that night, including four times in the fourth quarter.
Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors guard: “It was one of the most intense games I’ve ever been a part of. You could feel the angst and the anxiety on the verge of winning or losing. We kind of approached it as just another game, but once you get in it you can feel how hard they’re playing, how hard we’re playing, and you just want to advance. It felt like whoever got out of that game would have a good chance to keep on going.”
Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors forward: “It was great. Just the intensity of everything going on. It was one of those types of games that you want to be a part of.”
Marc Gasol, Toronto Raptors centre: “Like any other Game 7, every possession, every inch, every loose ball – it means a lot, obviously. You know those games tilt one way or the other with small details. We played unbelievable defence to get to that point. That’s what you try to do – you try to create opportunities and chances to win the game and hopefully you get a lucky bounce that allows you to go to the next round.”
THE LEAD UP
Each time the Raptors looked like they were about to take control, Philadelphia would answer back. Sure enough, that’s exactly how the last few minutes played out. Tied at 85 with just less than two minutes left, Leonard hit a long jumper – initially called a three but changed to a two. On the next possession, Kyle Lowry picked off a Sixers pass and found Pascal Siakam for a layup in transition, increasing Toronto’s lead to four points. With 10.8 seconds remaining and the Raptors’ lead down to one, Leonard went to the line. After hitting the first free throw, he missed the second. Philly got the rebound and Butler went coast-to-coast in roughly four seconds. His layup tied the game at 90 with 4.2 seconds on the clock. Toronto called a timeout.
Nick Nurse, Toronto Raptors head coach: “The lineup was funky. Danny [Green] was out, Marc and Serge [Ibaka] were in. So all four guys moved to a new position on the play, except Kawhi. Kawhi stayed in his spot. I moved Marc to take it out, which put Serge in Marc’s spot and then Kyle went to Danny’s spot. So I remember having to do that really fast but thank goodness it came to me really fast.”
Gasol: “The play was sort of what you saw. I mean not with that much distance for [Leonard] to cover, but he was just trying to find some daylight. He was determined to take that shot.”
Nurse: “I’ve been running that [play] forever. I stole it off a Hubie Brown video back in about 2007.”
VanVleet: “It was like, Kawhi’s getting the ball, right? Even if we didn’t call that timeout we kinda knew what we would run to get him the ball and get him to his spot, let him shoot it and see what happens. That’s why he was here, and the rest is history.”
Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors guard: “That was the play, give ‘Whi the ball up top. We ran a play that we’ve run before – give ‘Whi the ball, and he got to his spot and basically we watched greatness.”
Gasol inbounded the ball to Leonard at the top of the arc. Guarded by Simmons, Leonard dribbled to his right. Embiid left Siakam to help. With time winding down, Leonard dribbled to the baseline and pulled up in the corner just in front of the Raptors’ bench. Fading to the right he launched a 15-foot jump shot over the outstretched arm of Embiid. The ball hit front rim twice, then back rim twice. It bounced four times before falling.
Jordan Loyd, former Toronto Raptors guard: “Kawhi’s shot is naturally flatter and so when he got there and he got it off, I was just in shock at that part. Then I was in shock at how high it was and how much time it had in the air. Once it hit the rim I think everybody kinda thought it was gonna roll off. Then it kept hitting the rim, kept hitting the rim.”
Serge Ibaka, Toronto Raptors forward: “I didn’t think it was going in. I was under the basket trying to go for the offensive rebound. The ball was bouncing and one time I was so close to going [for it]. Thank God I didn’t because it could have been goaltending. That would’ve been bad. I would’ve retired. If that had happened I would have retired.”
Gasol: “I was trying to crash [the glass]. At first, obviously, it looked a little short but you’re trying to read where the bounce might go and you try to get the rebound. But the ball went straight up and it took a crazy bounce, then it took another crazy bounce and then it just stopped for a second, at least it felt that way from where I was. And I think, like I said before, the energy from the crowd and from the whole city just made the ball go the other way and go in.”
Norman Powell, Toronto Raptors guard: “Honestly, I really didn’t know if it was going in or not. Just the way the ball hit the rim, I thought it was going to bounce up and bounce off but it hit the rim the right away, a couple soft touches and it went in. I remember being sideline next to Freddy and running straight to Kawhi.”
VanVleet: “I remember just kinda leaning. The way he shot it, I was almost behind him. We were all right there, grabbing each other, just kinda leaning, trying to guide it in. And then once it bounced [a couple times] we knew that it was dropping, so we were just waiting for it to go through the net.”
Ibaka: “I’m really glad the basket went in because we were too tired to go to overtime. I don’t think we would have really had a chance in overtime. I could see on Kawhi’s face he was so tired, his lips were dry, and everybody was so tired. Going into overtime would have been a different story.”
An average audience of 2.2 million Canadians tuned into Game 7, making it the most-watched basketball game in the country’s history at the time (the current record of 7.7 million was set in Toronto’s title-clinching Game 6 win over Golden State in the NBA Finals). Matt Devlin and Leo Rautins were on the call for the Canadian television broadcast, while Kevin Harlan – one of the NBA’s most recognizable voices – handled the play-by-play for the nationally televised American broadcast on TNT. “Is this the dagger?” he asked, famously, as Leonard released the ball. “Game. Series. Toronto has won.”
Kevin Harlan, NBA on TNT play-by-play announcer: “You’ve gotta be organic. You wanna be succinct, you wanna be clear, you wanna be distinct in what has just happened and then you let it breath, and I think we checked every box on that. You don’t want to get in the way of the moment, but you want to add just a little bit of context, and I think with those three lines or those couple words we did that.”
Matt Devlin, Toronto Raptors play-by-play announcer: “At that moment, somebody asked me what I said but I couldn’t remember what I said because it was euphoria, pandemonium. At that stage, from the announcers’ table, it’s time, score, what the shot means and getting it right.”
Harlan: “It was almost indescribable and I think that’s kinda how we were on the broadcast. It was almost like a movie and in the movie you have all these parts that lead up to the conclusion, and that’s how that game was. It was not masterfully played, it was not a game where there was glittering statistics, it was just kind of a grind-it-out, nose-to-nose, very close game. And that kind of ending probably epitomized just how difficult a series it was for both of those teams. It took the bounces on the rim, a miraculous shot, almost an impossible shot to win it.”
Within minutes, several images of the shot and the subsequent celebration went viral. One of the most iconic, taken by Toronto Star photographer Rick Madonik, featured Leonard crouching on the baseline with his tongue sticking out, waiting for the shot to fall. Embiid is watching nervously to his right, while Loyd – Toronto’s inactive two-way player – is squatting to his left in a suit.
Rick Madonik, Toronto Star photographer: “I was up in the [hockey] gondola. You know Kawhi is going to take the shot, so in my mind it was: don’t lose focus, stay on him. So I’m just watching and watching and finally he starts squatting and I’m like what the hell is taking so long? Then the tongue came out. I almost thought of recomposing at that point but I didn’t want to change anything. I didn’t even notice Jordan Loyd come into that frame, quite honestly. I was looking at the tongue and I was looking at Embiid. And then it dropped and the place went crazy and I just stayed on him and continued to shoot and shoot and shoot. But I knew when the tongue came out, I knew, okay, that’s a little different. It was so close to deadline, so it was like I’ve gotta rip the card out as fast as possible and send it and I know they’re going to be very happy once they see this picture.”
Loyd: “It had to be like 10 minutes after, [assistant video coordinator] Tyler Marsh was the first one to show me his phone and he said ‘Look at this pic.’ I looked and I guess it was already trending and I was like, wow, of course I find a way to get into a historic moment. I just thought it was funny. Then people were sending me the picture like I hadn’t seen it. My phone literally was unreal. That was the most messages [I’ve ever gotten]. Even when I signed with the Toronto Raptors – I thought that was a crazy day too, I had a lot of people hitting me up – but this day was even crazier. Social media, parents, family calling me – it was crazy. I almost had to turn my phone off.”
Once the shot dropped, the sellout crowd at Scotiabank Arena – who stood for most of the final two minutes and were dead silent as the ball hung in the air – erupted. In a nice human moment, Gasol consoled Embiid, who walked off the floor in tears. Just about everybody else ran over to celebrate with Leonard, who showed some rare emotion.
Devlin: “I thought the most revealing thing about all of that, quite honestly, was what Kawhi talked about in the post-game presser, when he said he allowed himself to feel that emotion. And if you go back after hearing his words you can see where he embraced that moment but then there was a finite length to it. It was like, okay, I’m moving on now. And so to me that was a window into who he is as an athlete and the way he is wired.”
Ibaka: “It was cool. It was very cool to see the fans. For the fans it was like, it’s their life. For Raptors fans they’ve been dreaming about [moments like that] for so many years, and then we all knew last year was the year. So seeing that happen, nobody could believe it.”
Lowry: “I think the only other time I’ve seen it like that [in the arena] was when we first made the playoffs after the [five-year] drought, the first game, Game 1 against Brooklyn [in 2014]. Other than that it hasn’t been like that.”
Harlan: “Unless you go see a game in Toronto as a fan and are in that building, you don’t really realize how important that was for those fans, that city and the country. It was so evident, it was so palpable. You just knew how much it meant. The building, it sounds weird to say, but I can still hear the silence when that ball was bouncing on the rim, and that just doesn’t happen every place. That just showed you, I think it showed the U.S. and it showed everybody just how much it meant.”
THE HISTORICAL SIGNIFICANCE
Leonard made history that night. Not only were the Raptors on their way to the Conference Finals for the second time ever, where they would knock off the top-seeded Bucks and go on to win the franchise’s first championship, but Leonard became the first player in league history to hit a game-winning buzzer-beater in a Game 7.
Nurse: “I had no idea that nobody had ever done it before. I don’t think you realize it [in the moment]. I think it kinda keeps growing in its iconicness as you go here and as the time ticks away, as people keep writing stories about it and all that kind of stuff. It was a humungous shot.”
Gasol: “You simplify things as much as possible when you play basketball. You try to break it down to the smallest possible way for you to dissect the game and you don’t see everything else. You don’t look at history, you don’t look at what it means. It’s very objective and binary at that point for me. Right after that shot we first congratulated the other team, then teammates, [we were] happy, then as soon as we got to the locker room you think about Milwaukee right away. That series is over and you think about what kind of challenges Milwaukee might present. Your brain just goes into that mode right away because it’s human nature.”
VanVleet: “I mean, after the game you try to think of a comparison and you draw a blank. You try to think of something else – Game 7, all the marbles, one of the best players in the game, at the buzzer, literally at the buzzer to advance – and there’s no other shot like that. So you try to put it into perspective in that moment, but obviously as time goes on it will become more and more legendary.”
Devlin: “You don’t get many of those opportunities, and as you look back on it you’re just thankful that you were there to be a part of history and thankful that you didn’t mess it up.”
Harlan: “All I know is I felt honoured to be there and the fact that it ended the way it did will be a memory that I’ll carry with me forever. I don’t know if I’ll ever see anything as dramatic and as wonderful as that shot and the consequence of it.”
With the Los Angeles Clippers in town on Wednesday, Leonard will return to Toronto for the first time since delivering the team, city and country its first NBA title. Just before the game, the Raptors will present him with his championship ring to what we can only assume will be a rousing ovation. Lasting memories of Leonard include the superstar holding up the “Larry OB” and his Finals MVP trophy, or looking out into a sea of fans at the parade, but his most iconic moment as a member of the Raptors will always be The Shot.
Loyd: “I got [the photo] blown up and framed and everything. I was like, yeah, I can’t not do that. It’s gonna be in the NBA books forever, so I thought I would get it framed. I just got a home, so I’ll have it in my house. I think that’s pretty cool.”
Gasol: “There’s [a big mural of the shot] in the airport, right before we get to the plane. It’s right there. Every time we go there we just look at each other’s faces and what people were thinking at that moment.”
Devlin: “I’ve had some really cool calls along the way, but I think given everything that was at stake and given the fact that the shot had never been made in NBA history before, to me that stands alone. It’s different from ‘Touch ‘em all Joe’ because that was in the World Series, and Tom Cheek is legendary. You always remember that, that’s an iconic moment. This was the second round so a little bit different, or maybe a lot different because the other was the World Series. But, for me, in that moment there’s nothing quite like it, and for the organization too, and for everybody that watched it. It’s really cool. If you were in the building at that time I think you recognize how special that moment was, and I would also venture to say that everybody watching it remembers where they were. It’s one of those moments. So that to me really makes it stand alone for me in my career.”
Harlan: “I hope there’s not a feeling towards Kawhi of desertion or anything like that. He’s from Los Angeles, I think he’s always wanted to go there, his family is there. I think people get it. But for one magical year they had this incredible player, arguably one of the top-three players in the league, and he came up with this historic shot. And in the history of Toronto sports – and there is great history there with the NHL and the Jays – this is going to go down as one of those moments which you will never forget. The play was iconic. So few cities ever get that kind of iconic play. He delivered.”