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It already has been a full year since Kawhi Leonard hit one of the most memorable shots in NBA history. Tuesday is the first anniversary of Leonard’s defining moment as a member of the Raptors.
Sure, the team still had to knock off a pair of juggernauts in order to win the title, but that wouldn’t have been possible without Leonard’s heroics in Game 7 of the East semifinal against the Philadelphia 76ers.
If you’ve forgotten the specifics — forgivable with everything that’s gone down in the world since — the game was tied, with a little over four seconds remaining on the clock. Jimmy Butler had tied the game on a layup following a Leonard free throw miss. Off the inbounds, Leonard took off — this scribe recalls turning to the people next to him and yelling: “Holy s—, he’s going to the Vince spot” (a nod to Vince Carter’s iconic miss against the Sixers in the 2001 playoffs from the corner).
Leonard evaded Ben Simmons, merely one of the league’s most dangerous pick-pockets, and, even more improbably, managed to get a shot up over enormous shot-blocker Joel Embiid. Four bounces later, and history was made.
Danny Green had played hundreds of games with Leonard in San Antonio and then in Toronto, but this was new for him.
“I think at first a lot of us were like, ‘Ah, it doesn’t look too good. Then it got one bounce and it was like, ‘OK.’ And then the second bounce it was ‘Oh s—, we might have a chance here,’ ” Green said in the locker room after the celebration had gotten under control.
“It looked good, and then it hit the rim and then it was like, ‘OK, ah, I don’t know,’ … it was like, we finally got the little bounce,” Pascal Siakam said.
“I was watching it just like, ah, hit the rim, then I saw Serge (Ibaka) trying to jump to get the rebound and then my heart, I was like, ‘Serge don’t jump. Relax, relax.’ Because the ball kept bouncing and it was crazy. I’m just there watching it and I’m just there like, ‘ah, oh.’ So a lot of emotion going on, but definitely a great moment to be a part of.”
Ibaka would later say he would have had to retire if he’d accidentally goaltended the shot.
Leonard had actually missed 13 straight three-pointers in the series before Game 7 and hit only 2-of-7 in the game. But he made them count.
“It probably bounced four or five times. It seemed like it was 30 seconds, but probably took all of point-eight seconds. But once it went in I think everyone was just ridiculously excited. The whole building. I think they’re still yelling out there,” Green said.
He wasn’t far off. There have been roars in the building before, but nothing like what happened when everyone clued in that the shot had fallen and would count.
UNDER THE RADAR
The contributions of Toronto’s other all-star, Kyle Lowry in Game 7 were pretty much instantly forgotten because of Leonard’s heroics. Few think about what Lowry did in that game when they look back at his best playoff performances. They’ll point to Lowry’s 26 points and 10 assists to stick the dagger in Golden State, his stellar Game 3 against the Warriors, or Game 5 against Philly, or Game 4 against Milwaukee.
But don’t judge Lowry’s Game 7 performance by the 4-for-13 shooting stat-line (his accuracy was hampered by his sore thumb popping back out). You’d be grossly underestimating just how pivotal he was to Toronto’s huge win. Lowry did everything besides hit jumpers at a genius level in the game. Leonard likely doesn’t even get a chance to hit his shot without Lowry taking a couple of charges, coming away with two steals and some timely rebounds.
Lowry harassed Sixers ball-handlers throughout the game.
“He was being so alert and aggressive on his switch-outs, every time you saw an opening coming, there he was,” marvelled Nurse afterward.
“Obviously, the huge steal (leading to a Siakam layup). I think we had back-to-back shot-clock violations (calls against the Sixers) and that was getting ready to be a third one and he got to it just in the nick of time. Again, he played a lot of minutes, I think he played the whole second half and he was great down the stretch defensively.”
It all was yet another reminder of how valuable Lowry is and how the numbers seldom do him justice. If you’re only looking at stats when evaluating Lowry, you’re missing so much. Toronto’s won more games than all but a couple other team over the last half-decade, and Lowry’s the chief reason why.
When they needed him most in 2018-19, Lowry delivered. Time and time again.
You might have also forgotten how little control Toronto had of most of Game 7.
“We only won one quarter,” Lowry said. “But we found a way to win the game. That is all that matters.”
AROUND THE RIM
A couple other keys that won’t be remembered: Lowry picked up a couple of early fouls, but Fred VanVleet responded (and foreshadowed what he’d do against the Bucks) by stepping up with his best minutes of the series; Plus Toronto’s had a 16-5 offensive rebounding advantage over Philadelphia and was much better on the defensive glass too after getting killed on the boards for most of the series.
“We wanted to limit them to one shot and finish out our defence,” Green said.
“We needed them and it helped us big-time. It’s good when you’re able to crash the boards offensively and still get back. We did a better job all-around of communicating and finding guys.” Pairing Ibaka with Marc Gasol worked wonders for the Raptors in the series.
“A lot of times we were reluctant to play him and Marc early in the series together, but it was a great coaching adjustment to put them together. He was on the glass, offensive rebounds, defensive rebounds, blocking shots, making things difficult and hitting threes,” Green said.
Ibaka also hit a massive three-pointer. “Kind of looked like me out there in the corner one time. A little pump fake, swing through and no dribble shot. I’ve never seen him do that one before,” Green said of a rare non-catch-and-shoot Ibaka three that was a key.
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