clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

An Oral History of the Shot That Changed Toronto and Kawhi Leonard Forever

The forward’s buzzer-beater in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals propelled the Toronto Raptors to their first title, and ended the season for the young and ascendant Philadelphia 76ers. Players, coaches, broadcasters, and a ball kid talk about the biggest moment of the season, and the impact it had.

Eric Foster

It felt like the ball might have stayed up there forever. From my perch high above the court in the Scotiabank Arena press box that evening, it seemed unlikely that Kawhi Leonard would even be able to get the ball out of his hands before the buzzer. With the score tied and a little over four seconds left in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals, Leonard ran hard for the corner just in front of the Raptors bench. Ben Simmons was in hot pursuit, and Joel Embiid was closing out fast. Somehow, Leonard did get the shot off, and the ball bounced on the lip four improbable times—long enough that I was able to turn to the reporter next to me and speak a full (and ultimately incorrect) sentence: “We’re going to overtime.”

The proceedings did not, of course, go to overtime. The ball dropped through the net. Leonard and the Raptors won the game and the series, advancing past the Sixers on the way to the organization’s first NBA championship. It has been almost exactly seven months since Kawhi’s heroic, physics-defying feat made him the first person to ever win Game 7 of a playoff series on a buzzer-beater—a seemingly impossible play that helped deliver an eventual parade north of the border while simultaneously sinking the championship aspirations of the Sixers. It was a moment that will unquestionably and rightly go down as one of the most dramatic events in NBA history.

What follows is an account of Kawhi’s indelible performance (he finished with a game-high 41 points, to go with eight rebounds, three assists, and three steals) and the attendant ripple effects. In reporting gathered from that evening and in subsequent follow-up conversations, players, coaches, staffers, and broadcasters from both teams recalled the run-up to Game 7, the fateful shot, and the ensuing fallout for both franchises.

1. The Anticipation

Matt Devlin (Raptors TV play-by-play announcer): Based upon history heading into Game 7, there was a lot of excitement, anticipation, nerves, and understandably so. It’s a Game 7 … those emotions, no matter the city, no matter the team, are gonna be felt.

Eric Smith (Raptors TV sideline reporter): There was the sense, at least with Toronto, where I think they’d been a very good regular-season team, even a good postseason team, but they were not quite able to get over that hump outside of the [2016] conference finals a few years back. And then of course you go out and get Kawhi Leonard, and the reason you did that was to get over the hump. So, if you’re not able to get out of Round 2, is it a letdown again? Is it a disappointment?

Leo Rautins (former NBA player, former Canadian men’s national team head coach, Raptors TV color commentator): For some reason, there’s this, I don’t even know how to explain it, there’s almost this inferiority complex [in Toronto]. “The NBA is out to get us. Nobody wants us to win. We’re getting screwed by the refs.” You hear that constantly. And the fact that you had failures against LeBron, even though everybody else in the Eastern Conference failed for eight years in a row, that doesn’t matter. The fact that the Raptors did mattered. So you had all that. Also, feeling the networks don’t want us there. It’s all there. Then you couple that with years of losing. The frustration of the [Maple] Leafs. The Leafs seem to not win, even though things are getting better on their end. It’s that Toronto frustration and inferiority complex that, somehow, whether you’re a hockey fan or a basketball fan, needed a cleansing.

Smith: With the Raptors fan base, again I say this without trying to slam the other teams in the city, the Jays certainly had their back-to-back [in 1992-93] trying to get to the World Series. Folks were ignited. Baseball fans, sports fans in Toronto were ignited for at least two years. But that seems like a distant memory now for sports fans. Maple Leafs fans have obviously been starving since 1967. … So even the Raptors’ lack of success has arguably been longer and more sustained and even, just to use a plain word, better than what the Leafs and Jays have done.

As much as there might have been angst, there was still an appreciation of what the team did.

Rautins: I didn’t sense the angst. I felt there was a lot of excitement.

Devlin: The city was buzzing.

Smith: There was an edge-of-the-seat mentality for a lot of folks going into the game.

Michael Grange (Raptors reporter for Rogers Sportsnet): Explosive. That’s the word. Because it was pent up … this was just suspense.

T.J. McConnell (former Sixers point guard, now with the Indiana Pacers): The atmosphere during the game was great. It was one of the best atmospheres I’ve played in. The Raptors have a great fan base.

Grange: It’s not very often, in our business, sports, you get lucky sometimes. You’re in a place where 20,000 people are feeling, breathing, sensing everything at the same moment. That was 100 percent one of them.

McConnell: I kind of look at it in the aspect of when I have kids being able to tell them I played in a Game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Probably one of the better games the NBA has seen.

In advance of Game 7, and indeed all season long, there was speculation about whether Leonard, who was set to become a free agent in the offseason, would re-sign with the Raptors. Toronto seemed consumed by the question, and a grassroots movement in the city sprung up in an attempt to court him. Businesses, organizations, and individuals promised Leonard everything from free food for life to a gratis multimillion-dollar condo if he decided to stay in Toronto. The Sixers were dogged by similar what-if questions, from what might happen to pending free-agent wing Jimmy Butler, to the job security of head coach Brett Brown, whose employment status had been hotly debated.

Smith: You start thinking, “Well, hold on a second. If they lose this, does that mean for sure Kawhi is gone and he’s not going to even think about coming back because they didn’t make the conference finals, they didn’t make the championship, they didn’t win a championship? How are you going to try to sell him on coming back to a team that got bounced in the second round?”

Rautins: A lot of people thought Philly was a team that could get to the Finals. Everybody knew it was an enormous situation.

Smith: When you speak of the pressure, there’s a major portion of the [Raptors] fan base that was likely looking at it as we’ve been here before but not there. When I say there, obviously I’m talking the Finals … and then you factor in the idea of, OK, we gave up a cornerstone franchise guy and a beloved player in DeMar DeRozan. But I think over the course of the year—and this is 100 percent no disrespect to DeRozan, by any means, who I have nothing but great things to say about personally and professionally—but I think over the course of the season, I think a lot of people got over the fact that DeMar DeRozan got traded because of the fact that Kawhi had played so well and the team had played so well.

2. The Shot

Both teams tightened their rotations in Game 7. Only seven Raptors saw the floor, while eight took the court for the Sixers, though one of them, Greg Monroe, played just two minutes. All five Sixers starters played 40 minutes or more, and Embiid and Marc Gasol tied with a game-high 45 minutes each. Leonard took a game-high 39 shots, which was more than twice as many as any other player on either team. There were seven ties and 10 lead changes in Game 7. With just 10 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter and the Raptors up one, Leonard was fouled by JJ Redick but missed the second of his two free throws.

Leonard: Very mad … after that, I was like, whatever play you draw up, I’m about to get to my spot and shoot it. Shoot it with confidence. Things happen for a reason, I guess.

Tobias Harris grabbed the rebound on the missed free throw and got the ball to Butler, who went nearly the length of the court to tie the game on a streaking layup over the outstretched arms of Serge Ibaka. Following a timeout, Gasol set up to inbound the ball for the Raptors with 4.2 seconds remaining.

On the court for the Sixers: Embiid, Simmons, Harris, Butler, James Ennis.

On the court for the Raptors: Leonard, Gasol, Ibaka, Kyle Lowry, Pascal Siakam.

Nick Nurse (Raptors head coach): There was something strange ... someone was out who was normally in. I think it was Danny [Green].

Danny Green (former Raptors wing, now with the Los Angeles Lakers): I was on the sideline.

Nurse: He was out. I had to really quickly shift everyone. Kawhi stayed in his normal position on that play. Everybody else shifted a spot. So I remember saying, “[Pascal], you’re taking Danny’s spot. Marc, you’re now taking Pascal’s spot.” You know, really fast.

Green: In the playoffs, in that series and the Milwaukee series, we changed the lineups quite a bit. I don’t recall [why]. I think it was due to the fact Philly had been playing us tough. ... We went small. We went big. We went different. And we weren’t getting much rhythm or flow with our offense. I also didn’t go through a great shooting stretch at that point, so that might have been part of the reason.

Nurse: It ended up being fine.

Siakam set a high screen on the inbound play, and Leonard took the pass from Gasol above the 3-point arc, then made a mad dash toward the far corner of the court just in front of the Raptors bench. Simmons trailed closely behind on Kawhi’s hip, while Embiid tried to cut off the angle and leapt to put a hand in Leonard’s face.

Leonard: We ran a similar play during the Magic series. Ended up just catch-and-shooting the ball. Probably in like three seconds. I just remembered that moment, knowing that I had time, at least, to pump fake or take a dribble. [Nurse] drew up the play again. It was four seconds left. I believed—like I said, remembering that moment—I had some time to try to get some space, rather than catch and shoot the ball. I ended up catching it and just trying to get to a space so I could get the shot off.

OG Anunoby (Raptors wing, who was injured and on the Toronto sideline in street clothes for the play): [Kawhi] knew what he was doing. I knew he liked to go there. That’s his spot.

Leonard: Embiid was guarding me. He’s taller, longer than me.

Nurse: I actually didn’t think he was gonna get anything off. He kept getting bounced out wider and wider. And then Embiid came flying. That’s what happens a lot on that. If the center reads it right, he can get to that sometimes.

McConnell: I either thought [Embiid] was gonna get a piece of it or have to change the way [Kawhi] shot it. Joel contested about as well as you can.

Green: Kawhi is pretty quick. He got around [Embiid] and got some space. And once he got some space, he got the shot off. I knew he would get it off. I just wasn’t sure it would go in.

Quinn Lee (Raptors ball girl, courtside front row): I see Kawhi coming up the court. Joel is following right behind him. Joel fell right on top of me after he jumped up to block the shot. So I couldn’t see [Kawhi] actually release the shot.

I’m very small. My main concern was getting out of the way of [Embiid] and not even trying to see the shot.

Norman Powell (Raptors wing, on the bench for the shot): [Kawhi] was fading to the right. Whenever you’re fading away from the defense it’s tough for them to get a blocked shot. I didn’t think he was gonna block it. I was more looking at the trajectory of the ball.

Ben Simmons (Sixers point guard): He took a tough shot. He’s an incredible player. … Jo obviously got out there and was able to put a hand up.

Leonard: I just knew I had to shoot it high. A couple of possessions before that, I had the same shot from 3 and it ended up coming short. You know, I just thought I had to put it up even higher than that.

Fred VanVleet (Raptors point guard, on the sideline directly behind Kawhi for the play): 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.

Green: It was wild. I remember it looking really bad at first. ... At first I thought it was a terrible shot. It wasn’t going in.

Marc Gasol (who was standing directly under the basket): It was short. That’s what I thought at first. It took a good bounce. He put a lot of force on that shot. He put a lot of legs in that shot.

McConnell (on the Sixers bench at the far end of the floor): I kind of leaned out onto the court a little bit and watched the play unfold and watched Kawhi shoot it. It looked like it was gonna land short.

Brett Brown (Sixers head coach): I really felt, when it hit the rim, that it was gonna end up going in. It didn’t surprise me that it went in. When it hits at that angle, and goes kinda straight up, you feel like there’s a chance it’s actually gonna go in.

Grange (courtside, catty-corner from the Raptors bench): I had my laptop open and I’m watching and the shot goes up and it hits the rim once and the light goes on around the backboard. I could see that perfect. And I thought, “OK, it’s over.” I might even have glanced down.

And then, silence, right? Not a sound in the building. And it bounces again. And it bounces again. And you kind of feel this wave building.

Smith: I don’t want to sound cliché, but it truly was one of those pin-drop moments. … It was dead quiet. There was a collective gasp where everyone was just waiting. Those four bounces felt like four minutes.

Rautins: With every bounce, all the frustration of 24 years of basketball. And unfortunately, in Toronto, you have to lump in the Leafs. Anything that happens, all the fans don’t let go of the bad.

Lee (whose father, Jon, is the team’s strength and conditioning coach): When my dad first started working for the team, we were at a 30-win season. Maybe.

Rautins: You could just feel with every bounce, the emotion, the angst, it was all there.

Gasol: You felt the electricity in the building. Everything kind of stopped.

McConnell: It felt like the ball was in the air for about two hours.

Brown: It did feel like it was up there for a while.

Grange: Bounce. Bounce. They were high bounces, man. It wasn’t rattling.

Rautins: I’m watching him going, “Oh shit.”

With each [bounce] I’m going, “Oh shit, oh shit.”

Malcolm Miller (Raptors reserve, on the bench next to Powell): Originally, when it hit the rim the first time, I thought it was short. So I had turned away. Then Norm, like, grabbed me again.

Powell: It was a crazy bounce, honestly.

Green: As each bounce came and how long it took, I started thinking we had a shot. We had life with each bounce.

Miller: I saw it hit the second time. And then the third time. And then the fourth time. When it went in, everyone lost their minds. Everyone went crazy.

Smith: I have never heard a building erupt from such a quiet moment to such bedlam in an instant. It was crazy how loud it got. The sheer excitement and exuberation. All of the emotions pouring out all at once, from fans, from players, from coaches, from security staff, everybody.

Did that just happen? Did you just see what I just saw? Did that really happen?

3. The Aftermath

Grange: It was like a fuse was lit or a switch went off.

Miller: Everyone went crazy. Everyone ran to the corner. I ended up, out of excitement, just running to half court, to the 3-point line, I didn’t know where to go.

Powell: 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.

So many people were running on the court, I didn’t even see where everyone was going.

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.

Lee: Immediately there was a huddle around Kawhi. I was like, “You know what? This is definitely the moment.” So I went in the huddle and had to briefly touch his arm, just to say I did.

I’m 18. It was one of the coolest sports moments I’ve experienced.

Leonard: I’m a guy that acts like I’ve been there before. So, probably the last time you probably seen me screaming was like when [the Spurs] won [the 2013-14 NBA championship]. So whenever there’s a moment where I haven’t really experienced [something], I try to give some emotion, show some emotion, and let it just come out. [Game 7] was one of those nights. I’d never been in that situation before … it’s the first shot somebody hit a game-winner in Game 7. So I just showed emotion. And it was great. It’s a great feeling.

Butler: He hit a tough one. You tip your hat to that. He’s an incredible player. We know it. We all know it. Ain’t too much more you can say about it.

McConnell: As a group, we were like, “What? What just happened?” Obviously an amazing shot on his part. Kind of just stunned we lost that way.

Brown: It took that shot to end our season.

Marc Zumoff (longtime Sixers TV play-by-play announcer): When it dropped through, I went “Aaaaaaaaaah.” I threw my hands up and literally buried my head waiting to do the postgame show.

Embiid: Game 7. Losing a game that way. Last shot. After a hard-fought game. I feel that we had a chance. A lot of things go through your mind. It sucks. I don’t know. I can’t explain it. It just sucks.

In the immediate aftermath of the game, an emotional Embiid was consoled on the court by Gasol.

Gasol: It just happened. It just happened that way. I went back and celebrated the basket, and as I turned I saw Joel.

Embiid: Marc has a lot of class. Obviously I have a lot of respect for him. I won’t share anything, but he was just talking to me and making sure to let me know that I’ll be right there at this moment and further in my career. But I have a lot of respect for him. He’s a great guy.

Gasol: We just battled for seven games. That’s never easy to do. At that point, you just want to congratulate somebody. We have sort of a relationship. We respect one another. It just happened that way.

Brown: It’s gonna be a life memory. As painful as it feels, it will help [Embiid]. It will help shape his career. It will help give him greater clarity of what this time represents—all the stuff that has to accrue over many months to one day be a champion. It’s hard.

To see him have the emotion that he has, and he’s one of many, it is painful for all of us.

He will look in the rearview mirror and remember this. He will come out better and smarter and stronger and more aware, really, of what it takes to play longer than we’ve been able to play.

McConnell: I didn’t know what would happen in free agency. I kinda said to myself, “Was that my last game as a Sixer? That’s how I’m gonna end this?” It was kind of a crappy feeling. But that’s kind of the business of our league.

4. Reflection

In the wake of the shot, both franchises underwent significant changes. Leonard left the Raptors for the Clippers in free agency. Butler was shipped to Miami in a sign-and-trade with the Heat that brought Josh Richardson to Philadelphia. The Sixers also parted company with Redick and McConnell, while re-signing Tobias Harris and signing Al Horford as they continue to chase a championship. The attendant mood in Toronto, despite Leonard’s departure, was of a job well done, while Philadelphia was left to consider what went wrong.

Butler (to Yahoo’s Vince Goodwill in November): In order to win a championship, the stars have to align. Everything has to work out the right way: If you’re healthy, if you’re making shots. … So many things go into winning a championship, man. And to know you’re that close, it hurts. What if [Kawhi] would have missed that shot?

Gasol: It takes certainly some amount of luck. It takes a lot of work, more than luck. But certainly luck is always involved. Whatever you call luck, too. You have bad luck and you can also get good luck sometimes with shots like that.

Nurse: Oh, no, there’s a lot [of luck involved]. That [shot] is like one that everyone sees and talks about. But there’s so many huge plays throughout the guts of a lot of games. 63-60 in the middle of the third quarter and you really need a basket on the road and there’s a big long rebound. There’s dozens of them. That’s one of the things that when I went to [Las] Vegas [for summer league] some of the Miami guys said. They said, “Think about all those really huge buckets you needed.” I said, “No kidding, man.” There’s dozens of them.

VanVleet: I think about it with the new season starting when you guys gotta write your stories and predict who’s gonna do what. It’s like, “Yo, you have no idea. You don’t know what’s going to happen. You don’t know who’s gonna be where, what calls are gonna be made, what game-winner, what foul or injury, trades.” We had a completely different team after February. It’s a lot that goes into it. That’s what makes winning it so special. You have to do it for two months [in the playoffs], literally, two months. It takes a lot to get through it.

Zumoff: A good number of people on the internet flashed back to Vince Carter’s shot [against the Sixers in the 2001 playoffs]. You know, it’s like Toronto’s revenge.

Devlin: What a remarkable event. People talk about that game every single day. Wherever I go in Toronto or Canada, whenever I run into fans on the road, it’s one of those “Where were you?” moments. It’s something everyone is always going to remember. It’s iconic. It’s on T-shirts. It’s on posters. It’s in picture frames. It will be talked about forever.

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.


Oh God. Is This the Boston Celtics’ Year?

The Full Go With Jason Goff

“I Got a Surprise For You”

Off the Pike

Celts Make History at the Garden, Roll the Warriors. Plus, Maye Vs. Daniels.

View all stories in NBA