TORONTO -- Kawhi Leonard was searching.
He needed to get to a spot where he could elevate and get his shot off. Game 7 was tied and there were 4.2 seconds left to play.
He caught the inbounds pass to the left of the top of the key. Mission accomplished for inbounder Marc Gasol and basically everybody else in the Toronto organization. They got the ball to the right guy.
"It's his call from there," Raptors coach Nick Nurse said afterward.
Leonard's initial spin toward the right side of the floor took him 30 feet from the basket, with Ben Simmons on his hip. Joel Embiid left Pascal Siakam to double-team Leonard, but instead of making Leonard change direction, Embiid cut off Simmons and took him out of the play.
By the time he found just enough space to elevate, Leonard was in the right corner, where Serge Ibaka had started the play before vacating to take himself and his defender out of Leonard's way.
"Talk about running to your spot," Marc Gasol said. "He ran about three quarters of the court."
Leonard still had Embiid on his tail, and as he picked up his fourth dribble and elevated, the big man did a little bunny hop in order to time his final jump and contest the shot.
Leonard got the shot off just in time. And in order to get it over Embiid's outstretched right hand, he had to put some air under it.
"I just knew I had to shoot it high," Leonard said afterward. "A couple possessions before that, I had the same kind of shot from 3 and ended up coming short. I just thought I had to put it up even higher than that."
J.J. Redick was watching from the Sixers' bench, having been replaced by James Ennis for defensive purposes. From there, he could tell that the shot wasn't going to make it in clean.
"It looked short," Redick admitted.
It was short, but the high arc proved to be key. It was the entry angle that gave the shot a chance.
"Looks like it's going in," Nurse reflected. "Looked like it was going in the whole time to me."
The first bounce was the most critical, off the near side of the rim. It was a high bounce, straight up, and it reversed the spin of the ball.
"When it hits at that angle and goes kind of straight up," Sixers coach Brett Brown said, "you feel like there's a chance."
Fred VanVleet was on the Raptors' bench, right behind Leonard when he launched the shot.
"From that angle where we were at," VanVleet said, "it didn't look like it was going in at all at first. It looked like it was a little to the left."
If the NBA had ever adapted FIBA rules for basket interference, Jimmy Butler, Tobias Harris or James Ennis, all standing in the paint, could have jumped up and knocked the ball away to send the game to overtime. But they were all frozen, unable to do anything but watch.
The second bounce was the winner. It hit the same spot as the first bounce, but with the ball now spinning in a counter-clockwise direction, it took the ball over to the other side.
"Once it hit the rim once and twice," VanVleet said, "it was like, 'This is Kawhi. This is gonna fall.' "
The third bounce hit the inside of the far side of the rim and up.
The fourth and final bounce was the softest and in the same spot as the one previous one. From there, the ball dropped softly through the net.
It was Leonard's 39th shot of the night -- "I didn't want to leave any shots in my mind," he said -- and it was the first Game 7, game-winning buzzer-beater in NBA history.
Scotiabank Arena exploded. Leonard was mobbed by his teammates. Embiid broke down in tears. Marc Gasol couldn't help but console the 25-year old center that he held to just 37 percent shooting in the series.
"Losing a game that way, last shot, after a hard-fought game, I can't explain it," Embiid said, "It just sucks."
Raptors 92, Sixers 90. By the thinnest of margins and the most fortunate of bounces, Toronto is going to the Eastern Conference finals for the second time in franchise history. Philly, meanwhile, heads into a summer of big questions, having been unable to ride its incredibly talented starting lineup beyond the East semifinals.
Game 7 was a grind, not because the teams played poorly, but because they defended so well.
The Raptors cut off the Sixers' dribble handoffs for J.J. Redick, and when the ball moved, their rotations were on point. The Sixers went scoreless on their first nine possessions of the game, but the Raptors led by just five after 12 minutes because Philadelphia's defense was nearly as good. The Sixers shut off pick-and-rolls for Leonard, preventing him from stepping into the in-rhythm jumpers that he got in Games 1-4.
In all seven games of this series, the team that won was the team that led after the first quarter. But after winning the first quarter in Game 7, the Raptors trailed in the second, in the third, and in the fourth.
The building got especially tense midway through the third period when the Sixers turned a nine-point deficit into a seven-point lead with a 16-0 run. But Kyle Lowry, the one man who knows Toronto's playoff angst like no other, saved the game and the season with a series of big plays in the final three minutes of the third.
Once it hit the rim once and twice, it was like, 'This is Kawhi. This is gonna fall.' "
There were two offensive rebounds on the same possession, leading to a Leonard 3 that pulled the Raptors back within one. There was a tough transition layup over Embiid to put them ahead. After Embiid blocked a VanVleet fast break attempt, Lowry stripped Simmons of the ball, and threw a behind-the-back pass to Serge Ibaka for a lay-in.
A Leonard flurry had the Raptors back up five midway through the fourth, but the Sixers drew even with a pair of Butler free throws and a Redick three-point play. When the Raptors' season was seemingly on the brink, they dug down for a three-possession stretch of elite defense.
They didn't let Philly get into its sets easily, taking some time off the clock. They shut down Redick's dribble handoffs and scrambled back to Embiid. Every drive and every pass were met with a rotating defender.
The first possession ended with Butler holding the ball in the right corner, helpless to do anything as the shot clock expired with Siakam in his jersey. The second possession ended with Butler heaving a long step-back 3-pointer at the shot-clock buzzer that had no chance. And after Leonard put the Raptors ahead, the third ended with Lowry stripping Embiid with just one second on the shot clock.
"We just were doing it all," Nurse said. "We were pressuring the ball. We were corralling the right guys for a split second with two. We were either rotating or hustling back to our own, so just because we put two on the ball it didn't mean something was automatically open. And then we rebounded it after we contested."
"Those possessions, defensively, were awesome."
Still, the Sixers didn't die. After Leonard left the door open with a missed free throw, Butler raced down the floor to tie the game with 4.2 seconds left. At that point, the Raptors had scored 90 points on 90 possessions and the Sixers had scored 90 on 89. One extra opportunity with the ball was the difference.
Embiid played 45 minutes and 12 seconds, the most he's played in a regulation game in his career. Amazingly, the Sixers were outscored by 12 points in his 2:48 on the bench. Gasol was on the floor for all of that 45:12, making sure that there were no Embiid-vs.-Ibaka minutes.
Ibaka was no liability on this night, though. He was a plus-22 in his 29 minutes, and the Raptors played big - with Leonard, Siakam, Ibaka and Gasol all on the floor - for the final 9:30 of the fourth quarter. They survived Leonard's 4:43 on the bench, outscoring the Sixers by two points in those minutes.
Both teams played just seven guys, save for Greg Monroe's brutal 1:42 as Embiid's back up. Desperate times, desperate measures and all that.
"No one wants to lose," Leonard said. "Everything's on the line. You don't want to make no defensive mistakes to give the opponent an opportunity to score an easy look. I feel like both teams played that way at both ends of the floor."
An instant classic, down to the very last drop.
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