Such a shot has never fallen for anyone in a Toronto Raptors uniform, at least not while wearing a Toronto Raptors uniform — until Kawhi Leonard.
Perhaps on a night where his point total amounted to 41 such a shot should have been expected to fall. Then again, Kawhi Leonard had missed his previous shot.
With 10.8 seconds on the clock, Leonard made the first in a pair of free throws. Then he missed the second. Philadelphia’s Tobias Harris rebounded and passed the ball to Jimmy Butler who then did a very Jimmy Butler thing and drove for a game-tying layup with 4.2 seconds left on the clock.
At this time, overtime felt like a very real possibility, and for Toronto, a franchise very familiar with postseason disappointment, the same old same old started creeping into the rear view. Then again, Toronto has never had a player like Kawhi Leonard.
The first replay TNT aired when they went to the postgame report did not feature Leonard. They dug into the archive and unearthed footage of Vince Carter missing perhaps the biggest shot of his career against Allen Iverson’s Philadelphia 76ers in the 2001 playoffs. The reference is both timely and anachronistic. Those teams were vying for the opportunity to not only win the Eastern Conference but to somehow pull off the impossible feat of defeating a near perfect team in the Los Angeles Lakers, led by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. This year’s Toronto and Philadelphia teams are attempting nearly the same impossible feat, only they are vying for the opportunity to play the Golden State Warriors, unless Portland pulls off the impossible first. And, as was the case in 2001, the winner of Toronto and Philadelphia will have to survive the Milwaukee Bucks before reaching the Finals. History repeats. History is a false antecedent.
Kawhi Leonard is not Vince Carter. He is Kobe Bryant. He is Michael Jordan. He is possibly the best player in the game. His game winner arced into the stratosphere. The ball took forever to find the rim, and when it did, the ball bounced four times—almost as high as the initial arc–before finally teetering, before finally falling through the nylon. As the ball took its sweet time, Kawhi crouched in the corner, praying and waiting, looking less like any basketball icon and, as Ernie Johnson noted, more like Tiger Woods on a green in Augusta. Basketball is a game of speed and agility and even power, but that shot took a religious conversion to fall. n
The moment was enough to forget how many shots Kawhi Leonard needed to make Joel Embiid cry, how many shots Kawhi’s teammates were unwilling to take, how Philadelphia underperformed for much of the game, or how the play of both teams in the first half was so sluggish and sloppy that most of those witnessing it probably wished for the cloud cover and darkness of that other Battle at Winterfell a few weeks ago, where nothing was visible. And yet a game that started atrociously ended as epic folklore.