Kawhi Leonard hit a shot Sunday night that will go down in Toronto sports history. It bounced off both rims and hung in the air a long while before it fell dramatically through the hoop, and delivered the Raptors an electric Game 7 victory for the ages.
The megastar scored 41 points on 16-of-37 shooting – including the game-winner on the buzzer that sent Scotiabank Arena into pure, thundering bliss – and helped his Raptors snuff out the Philadelphia 76ers, 92-90. It sends the Raps to the Eastern Conference finals for just the second time in franchise history.
“I was gonna leave it all out on the floor tonight and not worry about makes or misses and still just try to will us to a win or just get to my spots. That’s something I’ve never experienced before, Game 7, game-winning shot. It was a blessing to be able to get to that point and make that shot and feel that moment.”
Serge Ibaka came up big for 17 points and eight rebounds, while Kyle Lowry had 10 points and Pascal Siakam added 11. Marc Gasol added seven points, 11 rebounds and three blocked shots. The Raps overcame a chilly 38.2 percent shooting night as a team, but dug in with tenacious defence.
Five different Sixers scored in double digits, led by all-star big man Joel Embiid, who had 21 points and 11 boards.
Their series had to that point been packed with erratic twists and turns – nail-biters and beat-downs, the Raps dominating in one game, the Sixers rollicking the next. Toronto could have eliminated the 76ers in Game 6 on Thursday, but instead the Raptors shrunk inside Philadelphia’s arena and failed.
So it was back to Toronto, where this Raptors squad – with its remarkable superstar – would face a win-or-go-home game for the first time. Both teams began Sunday’s game frantically and shooting terribly. Toronto was a clunky 5-for-23 from the field in the opening quarter, and Philly went 5-for-19.
Fred VanVleet entered the game midway through the first after Lowry picked up his second foul, and the Raps pulled away a little on the scoreboard. They revved up the pace, getting out quickly into transition to create speedy breakaway dunks for Leonard and Danny Green – part of an 8-0 Raps run.
VanVleet – who had been a nonfactor in much of the series – bullied his way to the line twice and added four points. Toronto led by a weird score of 18-13 after the first.
Lowry was back in to the start the second, but he jammed his left thumb on a play, and left for the locker-room as the crowd held its breath. The all-star point guard returned a few minutes later with that nondominant thumb taped, and clocked back in.
“I fell and it popped out and I popped it back in. It was kind of loose, so I was just figuring out how to pass the ball. I couldn’t really pass the ball, grip the ball,” said Lowry. “But that doesn’t matter. It was fine, I played, we won the game.”
Leonard was dominating, thundering for dunks and jumpers, drawing fouls, nabbing rebounds and generating steals, while still just shooting 6-of-16 through the first half. Siakam was getting to the rim, and Ibaka cracked open what had been a blank Toronto effort from three-point range, hitting a pair from deep. Lowry began scoring too.
But at the other end, Tobias Harris, Embiid and Ben Simmons were heating up as well, and the Sixers went on their own 8-0 run to make it a neck-and-neck contest.
With both teams shooting a wonky 34 per cent, the Raps led the high-stakes game 44-40 at half time.
Philadelphia went on a 15-6 run to open the second half, stealing the lead as Toronto repeatedly misfired their shots at the worst possible time. The Sixers were collapsing and smothering Leonard, but the determined superstar just kept shooting. Leonard went an ice cold 4-for-14 in the quarter – but he broke that chill by swishing a three-ball at the 2:49 mark – his first from deep since Game 4.
Ibaka stepped up with more monster buckets when the Raps badly needed them, and his team took a 67-64 lead into the final quarter of this riveting series. With the game on the line, the Raps had Ibaka and Gasol on the floor together.
The foes played tug-of-war for the lead in the closing quarter – Embiid playing huge, Jimmy Butler hitting the game-tying bucket in the dying seconds on his 16-point night.
Leonard exploded for 15 fourth-quarter points to lead the way, including that remarkable game-winner that hung in the air for what seemed like forever before falling, and making the arena explode in ear-splitting celebration.
“Great player obviously, he did his thing, he made some tough shots the whole series, they leaned on him heavily,” said Embiid of Leonard. “He’s a great player.”
After a heated defensive battle between big men through seven games, Gasol and Embiid shared a touching moment afterward. They hugged as the veteran Spaniard Gasol offered words of advice with the rising Cameroonian star Embiid.
The Eastern Conference semi-final will tip off Wednesday in Milwaukee, with Game 2 following there on Friday. The series will then shift to Toronto for Games 3 and 4, next Sunday and Tuesday. The No. 1-seeded Bucks have been resting since they eliminated the Boston Celtics 4-1 last Wednesday.
“It’s a little different style that we’re going to see, we’re going to have to adjust to that very quickly, obviously,” said Toronto coach Nick Nurse. “We have to forget about how happy we are pretty quickly, because it’s a hungry team, it’s a very deep team, and we’re going to have to continue to grow.”