At its best, basketball is the art of bending time.
Players float, above the rim and at the edges of our imagination, and the clocks slow down before the dunk thunders home. Twenty-four-second countdowns vanish in a blink during fourth-quarter comebacks. That orange ball bounces off that orange rim, once, twice, three times and then four, forcing history itself to wait until basketball decides the time is right.
Few moments have mastered the time-bending artistry of the game quite like that iconic Kawhi Leonard buzzer-beater, The Shot, the dividing line between when the Toronto Raptors were always that close and when they made it.
Pascal Siakam had a front-row seat to watch Leonard paint his masterpiece.
“I was on the floor just looking at the ball bounce and bounce,” Siakam told Ernie Johnson during Wednesday night’s #NBATogether, a Twitter livestream put together by the NBA. “I don’t know how many times, like you said maybe 12 times and go in.”
Thinking about the play again now, other details emerge for Siakam.
He remembers knowing Leonard was going to take the shot even if no one on the Raptors knew exactly how he’d pull the trigger as the Philadelphia 76ers threw the kitchen sink at him. He remembers setting the screen, creating a half-step of space between Leonard and Ben Simmons. He remembers Leonard’s long strides to the baseline, Joel Embiid and Simmons chasing him. He remembers the doubts.
“[I was just like], oh man, I don’t know how he’s going to do this,” Siakam said. “Is he going to be able to get the shot up?”
Leonard got the shot up. In part, at least, because of the little hesitation he did before releasing, Siakam thinks.
And once it was in the air, Siakam did what everyone else did: he waited, and waited, and waited, and waited until the fourth bounce finished and history was allowed to continue.
“I was just like you guys. I was watching it bounce. If you look at me I’m like … every time the ball bounces, I’m bouncing myself, looking at it.”
The memory is not solely anticipation, though. There’s a hint of dread, too. Not just that the shot might have missed. But that Serge Ibaka, who was ready under the rim in the event any of those bounces rolled the tiniest bit in another direction and Leonard missed, may go for the rebound at the worst possible time.
“I think the funniest part was, Serge was under the rim. And I think he wanted to go for the rebound. So the ball kept bouncing and Serge was trying to maybe jump for the rebound, and I’m looking at him like ‘Serge, please don’t jump.’ Please don’t jump. No goaltending, no nothing, we don’t want none of this.
“It was an incredible moment, man. I will always remember that moment. It felt fast but like, it was slow at the same time.”