It was a shot you will see repeated on highlight shows and YouTube for years to come. A shot to win a game and a series. A shot that shouldn’t have gone in, but somehow did.
On Sunday night, Kawhi Leonard beat the buzzer with a high-arcing, deep-in-the-corner jump shot that sent the Toronto Raptors past the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semi-final, 92-90. It took a few beats longer than your standard buzzer-beater, but for fans of anyone but Philadelphia, the wait was worth it.
It had been a hard-fought series. The Sixers had seized home-court advantage with a win in Game 2. The Raptors got it back by winning Game 4. The series ultimately headed, seemingly inevitably, to Game 7 in Toronto.
Toronto led for much of the game, but never by a large margin. With 1 minute 14 seconds left, the Raptors seemed to take a grip on the series at last, grabbing a four-point lead.
But the Sixers made some free throws, and Leonard missed a 10-footer and then a three-pointer. Jimmy Butler tied the score for Philadelphia. There were four seconds left.
Few in the arena doubted that Leonard would get the last shot. He was the Raptors’ star and already had a game-high 39 points. It was just a question of where he would wind up when he took it and if it would go in.
Leonard used a screen to get free and received the ball near the edge of the center circle. He then dribbled, circling the key and curling deep into right corner. First Ben Simmons followed him, and then seven-footer Joel Embiid came over to help out, to try to at least alter the shot that was coming.
Leonard headed toward the baseline. Two seconds, one. With less than a second on the clock, he uncorked an off-balance jumper, his feet leaving the floor from just inside the three-point line. Embiid jumped and put an arm up. Sensing this, Leonard sent it higher than usual on his release, 18-feet high according to estimates. On paper, it was not the most felicitous shot.
The ball sailed high, came down and hit the near edge of the rim. Generally, that’s not a good sign. But it bounced high, then dropped and hit the rim again. This time it looped over to the far rim, and hit that, bouncing a lot lower, a lot softer. Then a fourth bounce on the far rim. The clock had expired by then.
And then the ball dropped in.
Long-time NBA followers had trouble remembering a shot that took so long between launch and resolution. Certainly not one to decide a playoff Game 7.
Leonard tends not to be too excitable and he held character after the game.
“Embiid was guarding me,” he said. “He’s taller, longer than me, so I end up finding a spot that I like, that I work on. I just knew I had to shoot it high.
“It ended up getting a soft touch and going in.”
Social media was a little more excited. LeBron James could only speak in punctuation: “!! !! !! !! !! !! !!”
Leonard wound up with 41 points and a staggering 243 in the series. In the fourth quarter Sunday, he was six for nine for 15 points.
But regardless of how the Raptors fare in the Eastern Conference finals against Milwaukee, his time in Toronto may be short. He is a free agent this summer and has been the subject of frequent media reports linking him to several teams.
The Raptors advanced to the conference final for the second time in their history. In 2016, they lost to James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. Now Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks await.