TORONTO — Bounce. Bounce. Bounce. Bounce.
It’s not a Dr. Seuss rhyme, but it’s a storybook ending unlike any you’re likely to see at Scotiabank Arena or anywhere else, anytime soon.
With one fading, arching shot over all seven-feet of Joel Embiid, Kawhi Leonard rewrote one of the most memorable and painful moments in Toronto Raptors history — anyone remember Vince Carter’s jumper getting-nothing-but-iron in a loss to the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7, oh, about 18 years ago?
Well, there’s a new memory burned into every Raptors fans’ cerebral cortex for the next 18 years and likely much longer. A happy one.
Game tied, 4.2 seconds left, Leonard driving hard to his right, shedding six-foot-10 Ben Simmons but running out of real estate before finally rising up and over Embiid and letting it go.
It took a while. Leonard had time to squat down as everyone in the building held their breath and then rise up as everyone in the building — his mobbing teammates included — lost their minds.
The normally reserved Leonard did too. It was the first buzzer-beater to win a Game 7 in NBA history.
“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 with 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 in 2016 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.
And for the first time in while it feels like everyone can relax.
If the 2018-19 season is the biggest gamble in franchise history, going back to the trade that made Leonard a Raptor for at least one season, they have at least broken even. They can start playing with house money — lots of it — if they can somehow get past the Milwaukee Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals and start entertaining a run at an NBA title.
But at least they made it this far. At least they didn’t squander as big a stake as you can start with in the NBA — ‘Playoff Kawhi’ — by crapping out in the second round, busted and heartbroken.
Imagine breaking up your 59-win team, firing your coach of the year and landing a guy who delivers 34.7 points a game on 53-per cent shooting while grabbing 9.9 rebounds and some timely, on-demand, steals and going no further than you have the past two seasons?
It was close though. Very close. For a moment it even seemed like the ultimate indignity was at hand — the Raptors might lose because of Leonard who was an ugly — for him — 10-of-30 from the floor with three turnovers and just two assists through the first three quarters.
It was like watching DeMar DeRozan — traded for Leonard in part for his playoff failures — on one of his worst nights.
But Leonard wasn’t having it. What is it like to have one of the two or three best players in the world on your side? Leonard showed them down the stretch as he willed his way to 15 of his game-high 41 points in the fourth while playing nearly 10 minutes of his 43 on the night.
The Raptors won despite shooting just 38-per cent from the floor and 7-of-30 from three. They did it the hard way. For the first time in the series they won the rebounding battle — 49-41, including a 16-5 edge on the offensive glass.
“Everything’s on the line and you don’t want to make any defensive mistakes to give the opponent an opportunity to score an easy look,” said Leonard, who was 6-of-9 from the floor in the final period. “…We ended up winning this game shooting 38 per cent. It was a grind. We just kept fighting and swinging. Eventually in the fourth quarter we knocked some down that were big.”
No one was making more gritty plays than Lowry, whose contribution was much bigger than his 10 points, six assists and six rebounds would suggest. It seemed like every play he made was a big play.
“We found a way to win the game, that’s all that matters,” said Lowry, whose steal and pitch-ahead to Pascal Siakam gave the Raptors a four-point lead with 1:14 left.
Still, the Sixers’ Jimmy Butler was able to go the length of the floor and tie the score after a missed Leonard free throw with 11 seconds to go that could have iced it with a little less drama.
“I was very mad,” said Leonard after going just 1-of-2 from the stripe on that crucial trip.
The Raptors took a 67-64 lead into the fourth quarter in what was an absolute street fight of a basketball game. There was broken glass, smashed out windows and old-model cars on blocks everywhere.
As only one example both Serge Ibaka — who was excellent off the bench with 17 points and nine rebounds in 29 minutes — and Embiid ended up on the floor, holding their respective faces after being inadvertently smacked by Simmons (Ibaka) and Marc Gasol (Embiid).
Toronto trailed by as many as seven midway through the third but — fittingly for a throwback game — turned things around with a pair of old-fashioned post-ups by Ibaka and Leonard, who then hit his first three of the game and his first since his backbreaking triple at the end of Game 4, to pull Toronto within a point. The scores sparked a 13-3 run that gave the Raptors a three-point lead heading into the fourth.
But there was no breathing room. It was almost like if you did stop to fully inhale you’d get a lung infection from the dust rising from the rubble of missed shots.
It seemed inevitable that this was how it was going to go down after a too-close-to-call series had gone all the way to the limit.
A Game 7 is revealing and in the hours before tip-off the principles didn’t try to mask it. No one dared to argue, ‘It’s just another game’ because it wasn’t.
Perhaps the only team as ‘all-in’ on making a run to the NBA Finals this season as the Raptors were the 76ers, who made major mid-season moves in the Eastern Conference arms race that will be hard to emerge from unscathed. Jobs are on the line. Futures.
For the Raptors, it felt like their six-year journey that started way back with ‘F-Brooklyn’ in 2013-14 was reaching a climax. Win and the story continues, and what life after Leonard might look like doesn’t matter, because the future remains now.
Lose? Everything is under review, suddenly and unavoidably.
So yeah, big game, and within the game you knew there was likely going to be a play or sequence that would alter fortunes and that people would never forget. A shot that didn’t go down 18 years ago caused ripples that were felt for years and memories that have lasted just as long.
A shot Sunday night did go down — after a few bounces — and the Raptors get to move on.
And for the moment, the Raptors’ future looks much different — and brighter — than it did then or ever has. They have ‘Playoff Kawhi.’ They have a difference maker.
They have a chance to write a new story.