Do you believe in exorcisms?
Because on Sunday night, Kawhi Leonard performed the first one broadcast live on sports cable.
His buzzer-beating, game-winning shot at the end of regulation of Game 7 – an astounding first of those in NBA history – connected back to 2001.
Vince Carter. Eastern Conference semi-final. Toronto against Philadelphia. Last second in-bounds. Carter taking a corner jumper that rimmed out.
Eighteen years later, Leonard found himself in a nearly identical situation. Same scenario; different result; very different player.
Once again, Sunday night’s Raptors’ 92-90 win over the 76ers was a Leonard Production. He had 13 of the team’s final 15 points. With his teammates ice cold, Leonard put up more bullets than a Gatling gun.
“He took 39 shots,” losing coach Brett Brown said afterward, reading the stats sheet and shaking his head. “Wow.”
“I didn’t want to leave any shots in my mind,” Leonard said. “I would’ve had to wait five months for another shot."
It’s the last one no one will forget. It was the bat flip for Canadian basketball.
Tie game. Four seconds remaining. Everyone knew the ball was getting in-bounded to Leonard. It got in-bounded to Leonard. He plotted an arcing course toward the corner – much like Carter did – turned and took a half-blind shot with all seven feet of Joel Embiid directly in his face.
The ball landed on the rim like a Plinko chip. It took four bounces – lasting nearly three full seconds – before it rolled in.
In the celebrations that followed, Leonard showed a level of emotion – pogo-ing around, shrieking – that is completely new in this city. He’s already won an NBA championship. It looked as though this moment was up there with that.
"I’m a guy who acts like I’ve been there before,” Leonard said. “I’ve never been in that situation … So I just showed emotion. And it was great.”
It sounded as flat as it read. Leonard’s internal CPU had returned to its usual public, low-power mode.
Leonard was already the best Raptor in history. He is rapidly becoming the team’s only truly legendary player.
This is a good moment to step back and applaud not only the team’s performance, but the enormous gamble that made it possible.
Too few major risks are taken in pro sports. Because taking one is a terrible idea for a team executive. The easier path is plugging away in unambitious safety for years until you either get lucky or someone fires you. Then you do the same thing again elsewhere.
Though it looks golden now, the Leonard trade could have been an epic disaster. No one from the Raptors discussed it with him beforehand. After he’d missed nearly an entire season with injury, they couldn’t know for sure that Leonard was or would ever be fully healthy.
He might’ve shown up anywhere from hurt or surly to active non-participant. Maybe all three. He might not have shown up at all. That was all possible.
Raptors president Masai Ujiri may have the most secure position in pro sports. He didn’t need to do this. Had it gone totally wrong, it might have been the one thing that could put his job in jeopardy.
But a great chance was taken in any case. And it worked.
During these playoffs, Leonard is forcing a reconsideration of how a basketball season works. It used to be you tried, and then in April you tried a little harder.
Leonard’s new way of doing things is part-timing most of the year, then doing your work and everyone else’s during the postseason.
Regardless of how this turns out, he is already the best playoff performer in Toronto’s history. Less than a year in, he’s legendary in this town.
As a result, a franchise that’s been around for a quarter century – most of that miserable trending toward embarrassing – is now an NBA big shot.
Toronto will begin its conference final against the Milwaukee Bucks – the first all-around powerhouse the Raptors have yet faced – on Wednesday night in Wisconsin.
After that the Western Conference’s Golden State Warriors? Possibly without an injured Kevin Durant? Or a depleted one? This is where it gets hard not to start dreaming.
The Raptors haven’t won anything yet, but they have satisfied the basic requirements. Things that were still questions a few hours ago have answers.
Betting the shop on Leonard was the right thing to do. Betting a slice of the shop on Marc Gasol was also correct. Taking a flyer on career assistant Nick Nurse flew. Keeping faith with Kyle Lowry was smart, as well as unavoidable.
Nobody was getting fired however this turned out, but now everyone can get comfortable.
The same can’t be said for Philadelphia. The 76ers are now the team the Raptors would have been had the Leonard trade been a total bust.
Everybody in Philadelphia is getting fired. A once bright future has dimmed. People will fall out of love with Embiid and Ben Simmons, two bright young things who sleepwalked through most of the series. The pain is just beginning.
That’s how close the margins are in the NBA. Win a couple, everyone in the organization from the top man down to the guy in the video room is a genius. Lose a couple, you get a handkerchief and a cigarette and told to show up for your postseason exit interview at dawn.
In other years, this win would qualify as a massive success. This year, it’s a sign post. It’s fun for a moment and then on to the next.
Milwaukee is a different beast from what the Raptors have faced so far. The Bucks have their own Kawhi in Giannis Antetokounmpo. The Greek phenomenon – people have tired of calling him Freak – is establishing himself as the premier inside player of a generation.
In the previous round, Boston managed to stop him for one game. Then the Bucks adjusted and steamrolled the Celtics in four straight.
The Philadelphia series was typified by wild swings of fortune and near-nightly letdowns by one of the teams involved. It’s unlikely the Bucks will do Toronto the same favour.
The Raptors traded for Leonard nine months ago. Everything that’s happened since was a prelim to what starts now. The conference final or better. This is the reason they got him.
Now that Leonard has broken even, we’ll see if the Raptors can use him to turn the sort of profit they’ve never seen before.