With 4.2 seconds left in a tied Game 7 of the Toronto Raptors’ second-round playoff matchup against the Philadelphia 76ers, Kawhi Leonard took the inbound pass and dribbled to the right wing. Just inside the 3-point line, he released a shot over Joel Embiid’s outstretched right arm. The clocked expired while the basketball flew through the air, then the city of Toronto erupted after the ball bounced four times on the rim and fell through the basket. The Raptors won, 92-90.
🚨 THE SHOT. THE BOUNCE. THE WIN. 🚨
— NBA (@NBA) May 13, 2019
The shot heard ’round the NBA gave Leonard 41 points in the game and the Raptors a spot in the Eastern Conference finals for the second time in team history.
“I missed the last one short,” Leonard said on the court after his buzzer-beater, “so I just wanted to put it up in the air and got the shooter’s bounce.”
— NBA on TNT (@NBAonTNT) May 13, 2019
The victory was a long time coming for the Raptors organization and for Leonard.
Toronto was eliminated from the playoffs by the Lebron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers each of the past three seasons. The last two were sweeps, and the Raptors bore the brunt of the jokes that followed. Each of the two years before that, they were dealt first-round exits by lower-seeded teams. Now, after Leonard made only the second game-winning buzzer-beater in a winner-take-all NBA game, the playoff frustrations seem like a distant memory.
For Leonard himself, his shot helped to push his own struggles further into his past.
“Last year was a very down year for me,” Leonard said. “I was going through a lot.”
He endured a messy year-long breakup with the San Antonio Spurs, the only team he had ever known after being drafted out of San Diego State in 2011. Leonard won a championship with San Antonio in 2014 and established himself as one of the best defenders in the NBA, but faced growing tension with the team that traded for him on draft night. It all stemmed from what Leonard perceived as the team mishandling his right quadriceps injury. Leonard’s subsequent hesitation to return to the court soured many Spurs fans.
In July 2018, the Spurs traded Leonard and teammate Danny Green to Toronto. This season, Leonard started over with the Raptors as the go-to guy on a team that finished second in the Eastern Conference. He earned a trip to the All-Star Game this season for the third time in his career.
After scoring 13 of the Raptors’ last 15 points Sunday, including the series-clinching final bucket, Leonard was asked how he overcame one of the toughest episodes of his career to get to where he is now. Leonard looked to the Lord.
“God is good,” said Leonard, who has “Fear God, not them” tattooed on his right arm. “I prayed every day and then ended up getting healthy. Now I’m able to play basketball, and you could just see what He does for you.”
Leonard hopes to continue a historic playoff run, in which he averaged 34.7 points per game against the 76ers. The Raptors will now face the No. 1-seeded Milwaukee Bucks and MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo for a chance to reach the NBA Finals.
“I think they were the only team with 60 wins and they’re a tough matchup,” Leonard said, “so hopefully this Game 7 prepared us for them.”
The Raptors and Bucks tip off Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. ET in Milwaukee.
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