After recovering from Kawhi Leonard’s game-winning shot, the first Game 7 buzzer beater in NBA history, I wondered whether it was unprecedented or whether it should be compared to another standout Toronto sports moment: Jose Bautista’s bat flip.
How do they compare? Which one is more iconic? Bautista’s moment was bedlam. It was the turning of a release valve during one of the craziest innings of baseball ever played, but it’s not even the most iconic home run in Blue Jays history. Joe Carter’s World Series walk-off still tops it, and often lost in the shuffle is Edwin Encarnacion’s 2016 AL Wild Card Game walk-off against the Baltimore Orioles.
Leonard’s shot became instantly iconic because it was cathartic. It cured the playoff anxiety the Toronto Raptors have carried for their existence, since Game 7, 2001.
Eighteen years ago, Vince Carter attempted an eerily similar shot in a similar circumstance, against the same franchise. The stakes were the same: beat the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 of Round 2 to advance to the Eastern Conference Final and a date with the Milwaukee Bucks. Vince had two seconds to get his shot off. Kawhi had four.
Leonard needed every one of those four seconds as he released the ball with just 0.3 seconds left on the clock. By the time the fourth bounce transformed it from a miss to a make, the bucket erased 18-plus years of a fanbase’s growing inferiority complex.
Every Canadian sports fan old enough to have suffered through it remembers where they were when Carter’s shot hit the rim and bounced out. And they remember how they felt because it’s a feeling they felt many times in the ensuing years:
In 2002: When Chris Childs mistakenly thought the Raptors were losing by four against the Detroit Pistons and missed a 35-foot three-pointer while trying to get fouled when they were actually only down three in a deciding Game 5.
In 2007: When Jose Calderon’s pass to Chris Bosh was intercepted by Richard Jefferson as time ran out against Vince Carter and the Nets in Game 6.
In 2014: When Kyle Lowry’s shot was blocked at the buzzer by Paul Pierce in Game 7 at the dawn of the ‘We The North’ Era.
Leading up to this past Sunday, every iteration of Raptors playoff basketball has had its own version of late-game heartbreak. It’s become a rite of passage for Raptors fans to get their hopes up in the spring, only to see their team fall inexplicably short at the highest leverage moments.
But this year, so far anyway, Kawhi Leonard is authoring a different script. He has taken it upon himself to do something different because, frankly, he is different. In the final seven minutes of Game 7, Kawhi scored 13 of Toronto’s 15 points. He outscored Philadelphia 13-12 in the last 6:30 of the game. Lucky bounce or not, it was apparent he wasn’t going to allow the Raptors to lose.
Leonard is doing for the Raptors what LeBron James has forever done to the Raptors. On Sunday, Leonard’s large hands scored 44.6 per cent of Toronto’s points, the most by a single player in a Game 7. Leonard’s 34.7 points per game on 54-per cent shooting over the course of the series is the best basketball a Raptors player has ever played. His 34.7 points are fifth-most in a seven-game series in NBA history.
If Vince put this city on the map, Kawhi is redrawing the borders.
Leonard’s prayer immediately became the most important moment in Raptors franchise history — the franchise whose games were initially broadcast on the New VR performed Sunday in front of 5.2 million Canadians watching on television, the most ever. Going head-to-head with Game of Thrones, it was also the most tweeted about Raptors game ever with the clip of the game-winner and the Phantom Cam video becoming the NBA’s second and third most-viewed Twitter videos of the post-season, according to the league.
Carter shouldering the weight of this country’s basketball hopes and dreams was a heavy load to bear. Since the heights of the franchise never felt higher than during the Vin-sanity era, it made it easy to continue to hate Carter for his role in what they didn’t achieve.
If Vince was the high school breakup that ruined you, Kawhi is the relationship that puts the old one in perspective — allowing you to fully appreciate the good times because you now have some distance from it.
And in so many ways, Leonard is the anti-Carter. There have been no passive-aggressive messages through the media. There’s nothing flashy about Kawhi’s game, and his effort and toughness have never been in question. Leonard is polite, understated and workmanlike and I’m not sure there is an NBA star that more accurately depicts the ethos of this country.
Leonard approaches basketball with the mindset of an NHL power forward. In Toronto such traits have allowed him to be be warmly embraced. In San Antonio, the system and the coach were the star. In Toronto, Leonard is the reluctant lead singer. In a celebrity-driven league full of social media powerhouses, Leonard hasn’t tweeted since 2015!
Instead, he’s letting his game do the talking. He is a Finals MVP and defensive player of the year, but somehow it feels like only now is he getting his proper due.
Toronto @Raptors fans went WILD when #Kawhi hit the buzzer-beater to win game 7. I collected fan videos into this supercut that is sure to make you smile. (My faves are the kids in the middle & the ending ) #Raptors #RTZ #WeTheNorth https://t.co/dySn3EHbwq pic.twitter.com/Z4DP5dB0aM
— Melissa Tait (@meltait) May 13, 2019
And even if he does decide to turn down more money and a winning situation here in Toronto to sign this summer closer to home in California, can Raptors fans really be upset with him after he’s blessed them with this playoff run? Sports fandom is all about entertainment and hope. Leonard, for at least one year, has given Raptors fans plenty of both.
The Vince/Kawhi comparisons began as soon as Kawhi was acquired. Masai Ujiri and Bobby Webster took heat in some circles for trading for Leonard — not because it was a bad basketball deal, but because DeMar DeRozan wanted to be a Raptor, while many assumed Kawhi was here to leave.
If you’re a Raptors optimist, Leonard’s shot allows you to come to terms with past franchise failures. If you’re a pessimist, the level of super-stardom on display will simply remind you just how inadequate Carter was as the leader of the franchise.
Either way, I’m not telling you Leonard’s legendary play gives you permission to forgive Vince Carter if you haven’t already. I’m telling you Leonard’s presence gives you permission to no longer care, because right now you have a better player and a better team than you’ve ever had.
For once, the ball bounced in Toronto’s direction. For once, the superstar embodied characteristics that Canadians appreciate. And for once, Canadian basketball fans learned that they too deserve nice things.
The redemption shot makes the graduation shot ancient history.
Enjoy it while it lasts.