Oral history: Kawhi Leonard's remarkable 4-bounce buzzer-beater
2 years ago, the Toronto Raptors won the NBA Eastern Conference semifinals. Here's how it went down
This story was originally published in 2020, on the one-year anniversary of 'The Shot,' and we are bringing it back today for our Sunday Read series.
"It's off to Leonard… defended by Simmons… Is this the dagger?... GAME, SERIES, TORONTO HAS WON!" – Kevin Harlan, TNT
"Kawhi up top, looks at the clock, turns the corner, for the wiiiiiiin… GOT IT… KAWHI LEONARD… WITH THE GAME-WINNER!" – Matt Devlin, Sportsnet
It's May 12, 2019, Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals: Philadelphia 76ers at Toronto Raptors.
The Raptors had undergone a major makeover in the off-season. First, long-time head coach Dwane Casey was fired after yet another dispiriting loss to LeBron James's Cleveland Cavaliers in the previous year's playoffs. He would be replaced by assistant Nick Nurse.
Then, former franchise centrepiece DeMar DeRozan was shipped to the San Antonio Spurs for a disgruntled, injured Kawhi Leonard and sharpshooter Danny Green.
The new-look Raptors raced to second in the East, with Leonard taking every few games off for what became known as load management. At one point, he referred to the regular season as "82 practices."
Toronto vs. Philadelphia
After disposing of the Orlando Magic in the East quarter-finals, Toronto met third-seeded Philadelphia, featuring an ascendant Joel Embiid and hired gun Jimmy Butler.
The teams had last met in the playoffs in 2001, when Raptors star Vince Carter went toe-to-toe against 76ers foe Allen Iverson. Down 88-87 and two seconds remaining in Game 7, Toronto put the ball in Carter's hands with a trip to the East final on the line.
Carter missed, and it would be 15 years before the Raptors won another playoff series.
The 2019 series, meanwhile, was tightly contested right up until those final 4.2 seconds. Embiid largely carried the 76ers, with his team cratering whenever he sat. Likewise, Leonard carried the Raptors — the highlight being a three-point dagger in Game 4 to help Toronto even the series.
Each team featured pending free agents (Leonard, Butler and the 76ers' Tobias Harris), and the thinking went that a trip to the East final would help solidify a case to keep them. A second-round exit would likely seal the opposite fate.
WATCH | Panel discussion on the impact of The Shot:
Kyle Lowry, Raptors guard: We only won one quarter [the first quarter]. There were a lot of things we could have done a lot better.
Fred VanVleet, Raptors guard: It was a back-and-forth game. Not the prettiest of basketball. But that's just the way this series has been.
Marc Gasol, Raptors centre: Like any other Game 7, every possession, every inch, every loose ball — it means a lot, obviously. You know those games tilt one way or the other with small details. We played unbelievable defence to get to that point. That's what you try to do — you try to create opportunities and chances to win the game and hopefully you get a lucky bounce that allows you to go to the next round.
Danny Green, Raptors forward: Offensively, we didn't have it going. We did well defensively — we rebounded and boxed out. But we couldn't get the pace we wanted, or the open looks.
Nick Nurse, Raptors coach: We actually kinda had a little more control of the game there at the end than it appeared. We were leading, leading, leading, leading. And always by more than one possession, or at least three with the ball.
For nearly two minutes at the end of the quarter, tied 85-85, neither team can score. At the 1:41 mark, Leonard hits a contested jumper. A dunk from Pascal Siakam puts the Raptors up four, before Butler hits a free throw. Leonard misses another jumper; Embiid responds with two more free throws.
Down one with 11 seconds remaining, the 76ers are forced to foul. Leonard hits the first, but misses the second. Harris collects the rebound and flings it forward to Butler, who hits a lay-up that Serge Ibaka just misses blocking. 90-90. Nurse calls a timeout.
WATCH | The 1st Game 7, series-clinching, buzzer-beater in NBA history:
Mark Blinch, photographer: During the timeout, I took a quick peek through all my lenses and decided I'd go a little looser than I had been shooting previously. I chose to shoot it with a looser lens that has less zoom. I wanted to get some of that atmosphere and try to get everything in the picture.
Leonard: I was very mad [after missing the free throw that led to Butler tying the game at 90-90]. I tried to race down and get a rebound. I probably should have sprinted back to give some help on that layup Jimmy made. But after that I was just like, "whatever play [coach] drew up, I'm about to get to my spot and shoot it, and shoot it with confidence."
Nurse: The lineup was funky. Danny [Green] was out, Marc and Serge [Ibaka] were in. So all four guys moved to a new position on the play, except Kawhi. Kawhi stayed in his spot.
Green: I was in the corner, on the bench, waiting for it to drop in.
Nurse: I guess I didn't really contemplate how I felt about going into overtime.
Blinch: Classic basketball training shooting photography is that whenever it's a buzzer-beater type of moment, you always want the ball, the basket and the player in the frame.
Leonard: A couple possessions before that I had the same kind of shot from three and I just knew I had to put it up even higher than that.
Lowry: That was the play, give 'Whi the ball up top. We ran a play that we've run before — give 'Whi the ball, and he got to his spot and basically we watched greatness.
Nurse: I actually didn't think he was going to get anything off. He kept getting bounced out wider and wider. And then Embiid came flying. If the centre reads it right, he can get to that sometimes.
VanVleet: I thought there was no chance it was going in. Standing behind him, you could see the trajectory of it. It looked like it was going off to the left.
Lowry: My view was standing in the other corner. He shot it high enough where he gave himself a chance.
Green: I thought it was going to overtime at first. It didn't look like it was on target. It bounced, and it gives you a little bit of lightning. It bounced again and you're like, OK, we may have a shot here.
WATCH | Full recap of Game 7 between the Raptors and 76ers:
Leonard: Embiid was guarding me, you know he's taller, longer than me. So I end up finding a spot that I like, that I work on, I end up getting to a spot and I just knew I had to shoot it high.
Gasol: You felt the electricity in the building. Everything kind of stopped.
Norman Powell, Raptors guard: The anticipation of the shot, we didn't know what to do. I didn't know what to do for like a split second. Then I just ran over to Kawhi.
Green: And everybody went crazy.
VanVleet: I was right there in the mix. It's a fine line between being happy and not trying to get hurt. You don't want to get trampled and rolled on. Nobody fell, which was good.
Leonard: It was great. That's something I never experienced before — Game 7, game-winning shot. So it was a blessing to be able to get to that point and make that shot and feel that moment. It's something I can look back on in my career.
Blinch: Usually for big moments, I take a minute to pause and I don't directly look at the camera. I sort of pray that it's there. But when I was scrolling back when I saw the shot with the ball through the iron, I was relieved.
Seerat Sohi, Yahoo! Sports NBA reporter: The four bounces was probably the most prominent part because that was this moment where everybody in the building is silent and it was almost like a religious experience.
Blinch: I always say that those four bounces created such an amazing tension in the arena. I don't think for me the picture would be as good if the ball just went straight in. It was the one second that created all the tension in the arena.
Lowry: I think the only other time I've seen it like that [in the arena] was when we first made the playoffs after the [five-year] drought, the first game, Game 1 against Brooklyn [in 2014]. Other than that it hasn't been like that.
Doug Smith, Toronto Star Raptors reporter: There was a measure of vindication for [Raptors general manager] Masai Ujiri for having fired Dwane Casey and traded away DeMar DeRozan … I don't think anyone was surprised [Kawhi] took the shot, but it was sort of a cathartic moment for the franchise who had undergone such great change.
WATCH | Fans relive the shot:
Sohi: I had never seen anything like that where there were 20,000 people, who just seconds ago were all screaming and then all of us are holding our breaths, all of us are watching the exact same thing. And for this fan base that has expected for things to never work out, it actually finally works out when everyone's watching.
Smith: That's the lovely part of sports that great moments are basically fate. If Vince's goes in and Kawhi's doesn't, what's the difference in the trajectory of the franchise? Of the sport? One of my first reactions was this was a mirror image to 18 years earlier.
Blinch: I'm not sure that we'll ever get a moment of that magnitude again. Maybe we'll win again, of course, but I think in that dramatic fashion, what he's left Toronto and Canada as a country, I'm content.
Nurse: I was thinking we better enjoy this for a day. I even told the team "that was a hell of a series and that was a hell of a team we just beat."