Behind the broadcast of Kawhi Leonard’s four-bounce masterpiece

Michael Grange reflects back on the Raptors’ iconic shot from game seven against the Philadelphia 76ers in last year’s second round of the NBA Playoffs.

Sportsnet and TSN are airing the entire Toronto Raptors championship run, playing a game every single night until the Larry O’Brien Trophy is awarded on April 12. Full schedule details can be found here.

Do you remember what you were doing on the morning of May 12, 2019?

Maybe you were scouring your dresser for that lucky pair of socks. Or painstakingly flipping through your jerseys, debating whether to go current with a “Lowry” or a “Leonard” or with something more old-school — a “Carter,” perhaps — to help give the boys in white the edge.

Winner-take-all Game 7s for a chance to reach the Eastern Conference Final don’t come around too often, after all.

The game that night ended up being perhaps the most iconic game in Toronto Raptors history, a Game 7 matchup with the Philadelphia 76ers that will forever be etched into the hearts and minds of all who watched it thanks to the remarkable, first-ever series-clinching shot by Kawhi Leonard.

Tonight, Sportsnet and Sportsnet ONE will be re-airing this epic contest at 8:00 p.m. ET so you can re-live the magic all over again – this time sans the likely vomit-inducing nervousness you were feeling the first time around.

But as you take in the contest, do yourself a favour and watch the broadcast a little more closely. While the novelty of that moment in franchise history allowed this particular Game 7 to stand apart from any Raptors game that had come before it, it also meant a novel pressure for those working that night’s broadcast. Just as it was a career thrill for the players and coaches on the floor, so too was it a peak for those shaping the live coverage of that game – and the pressure to capture the full weight of the moment wasn’t slight.

“It’s a lot going on, especially with it being a Game 7 and knowing the magnitude of it,” said Raptors broadcast director Chris Phillips in a recent telephone interview.

“It’s more so all the storylines that have been building throughout the series,” Phillips added, speaking about how he had prepared for Game 7. “You want to pay attention to all of the details and things that could potentially come up in the game. So you’re kind of anticipating things. Obviously, with what Embiid had done in Game 3, that was a factor, with the showboating and all of that stuff and whenever we’d show him to the Toronto fans they’d be reacting to him a little bit. So you’re keeping an eye out for that. And coming off a Game 6 loss and knowing the importance of it, you know the crowd’s gonna be into it.”

It’s not just the broadcast director and the truck that does its homework. The voices you hear every game do a tremendous amount of prep work ahead of each and every game.

“If you speak to those that work with me, I prepare for every game like it’s a Game 7,” said Raptors play-by-play voice Matt Devlin over the phone. “It’s just I enjoy preparing, and I think you owe it to the fans to be as prepared as you can on every single night. I know Jack [Armstrong] and Leo [Rautins] feel the same way, and I’m blessed to work with two of the best in the business. So, for me, we each have our routines – you spend an exorbitant amount of time preparing for every game.”

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Still, no amount of preparation can really prepare you for a moment like a series-clinching shot, particularly with only a timeout to get ready for it. That’s where experience comes into play.

“Coming out of the timeout I assigned cameras to what they should be doing if this goes in,” said Phillips. “So my tight-follow camera, I told him that, ‘If anyone is gonna be taking this shot it’s gonna be Kawhi.’ So I told him to stick with Kawhi no matter what.”

It was a bit of a risky proposition as the ball could’ve just as easily landed in Kyle Lowry’s hands to try to win it. But with Philips’s read of the situation proving prophetic, everything was set in place perfectly for the kind of broadcast Phillips wanted.

“[I had a camera] isolated on Kawhi from the moment the ball was inbounded and it never left him,” Phillips said. “And then other cameras I’m telling, ‘If the ball falls through the hoop I want you to shoot fans.’ I also wanted another camera to stick with Embiid, and I wanted another camera to get up and get right into the huddle if the ball falls through the hoop. And miraculously it does. And it all just falls into place.”

The dominoes had been set up just so, and as Leonard’s four-bounce masterpiece fell, so too did the dominoes.

“Everybody is where they’re supposed to be so it makes my job a little easier in the sense that as soon as the ball falls through the hoop on the Sportsnet broadcast, the first thing I do is cut to Kawhi and you can see him screaming. And then as he drifts behind the backboard and he gets blocked, I cut to the crowd shot because I know it’s there, and then I cut outside because I know they’re going crazy.

“And then that camera that’s underneath the basket is now standing right in front of him, trying to get inside that huddle, so I go there, and it all just fell into place.”

At the time, there were complaints on social media about the decision to not immediately show the replay. But, as Phillips said, it was a conscious decision to try to capture what wasn’t just a great Raptors moment, but an all-time great Canadian sports moment.

“It was so electric in the building that it was hard to leave it. There was so much emotion — there were so many great shots of fans going crazy, players going crazy, Kyle walking around kissing the ball. There was just so much happening and it’s so hard to leave that.

“We can always see the shot — we can always show it over and over and over again. But how do you just absolutely miss all of that emotion and all of that stuff on the floor?”

It’s for this reason that colour commentator Rautins opted to refrain from chiming in until long after Devlin’s call.

“Matt, at the end of the game, made a great call on the final shot,” said Rautins. “So the last thing I need to do is chirp in and destroy it. So you’ve gotta take a step back and let the viewers take in a moment, hear the crowd and enjoy the whole thing.”

Of course, Rautins didn’t stay entirely silent during the call of the play. One of the best moments of the whole television event was hearing him chuckle with everyone else in the country in pure joy over the shot going down.

“You’ve gotta remember — I’m a Toronto kid, I’m a basketball lifer, I’ve been with the Raptors since Day 1. So that was a moment for me, too, like everybody else,” said Rautins.

“What Kawhi did was he gave that ball a chance. So my giddiness came from as soon as that ball hit that first bounce it went straight up and my reaction was, ‘OK! All right!’ And then, when it came back down it’s got backspin and it’s a soft touch, so you put the arc, the backspin [and] the touch together, and that ball has a chance.

“And then at the end of it, it was just a laugh of knowing that I kinda felt that this was gonna happen because with the first bounce I felt really, really good, and I just felt better with each bounce. So it was just happiness when it all played out that way.”

For Devlin, the experience of that series-clinching shot was a different one than the rest of ours. It was all business.

“I think everybody remembers where they were. But for me it was, you know, Kawhi receiving the pass, making a turn at the right wing, Ben Simmons handing him off to Joel Embiid, and fading deep into that corner, and Kawhi as we know typically shoots a line-drive shot but at that moment he had to shoot a rainbow shot over the outstretched arms of Joel Embiid. And four bounces later, and a ton of anticipation, the ball went through the net,” Devlin recalls with pinpoint accuracy.

Capturing the significance of that series of events came down to keeping things simple, Devlin said, and letting the moment speak for itself.

“I think in Game 7, you go to time, score, and what does this mean? It’s ‘Here’s the information’ – timeouts remaining, fouls to give. You go through all of that, and then it’s time, score, and what that shot means. And that’s ultimately all I thought about,” he said. “And then you’re reacting to what you’re seeing in front of you. Then, ultimately, as that ball eventually does go through, it becomes a moment where you allow the pictures to tell a story.”

And so they did, with Phillips, Devlin and Rautins doing their part — both before that historic broadcast and as it unfolded — to give the moment the reverence it deserved. Looking back on it now, its significance for Devlin and his fellow broadcasters sits just about where it does for every fan that was in the building or glued to their TV set that night.

“It was, for me – outside of Game 6 of the NBA Finals – the greatest moment that I’ve ever called.”

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