With the fate of a play, a game, a series, a franchise, and a future in the hands of Kawhi Leonard, could there have been any other shot taken? If one play had the power to reinforce a franchise’s past or alter the trajectory of its future, it had to have been this: merely inches from the sideline in the final moment of the Raptors’ Game 7 against the Sixers in the 2019 Eastern Conference semifinals. A shot that, in the moment, seemed like it had the power to change the perception of Toronto as a whole.
With one baseline fadeaway, the Raptors are now back in the Eastern Conference finals for the first time since 2016, after a tense 92-90 win over the Sixers on Sunday. History favored the Raptors this time around.
Eighteen years ago, Vince Carter attempted a similar shot roughly 60 feet along the same side of the court, under similar circumstances, against the same franchise. Eighteen years ago, the ball clanked off the right side of the rim and the reverberations from that miss have haunted the team until … now. Nearly two decades of the city’s anxious self-fulfilling prophecies—spanning the void that Carter left upon his forced exit, then the existentialism brought upon by LeBron James—brought Toronto right back to a past they’d long hoped to overcome, mirrored on the other side of the floor. Vince had two seconds; Kawhi had four—as if time had to account for folding on top of itself. But with this second chance, they’ve broken through. This shot. It’s the greatest moment in Toronto Raptors history.
Kawhi Leonard’s hands are 9.75 inches long from the base of the palm to the tip of the middle finger, and 11.25 inches wide from thumb to pinkie. They account for more than a quarter of Leonard’s absurd 7-foot-3 wingspan, offering him the defensive radius of a center with a swingman’s frame, all maximized by extrasensory anticipatory skills—on both ends of the floor. Three years ago, he held his hand out in comparison with Shaquille O’Neal’s on Inside the NBA. Shaq, arguably the most physically imposing player in NBA history, had at least 6 inches of height on Leonard, and yet, from their hand-by-hand comparison, the difference in hand length was mere centimeters—equivalent to roughly half the length of each of O’Neal’s distal interphalangeal joints (or minor knuckles). But Leonard’s hands are capable of things Shaq could only dream of doing. And in the biggest moment, the Klaw rose above a lunging Joel Embiid, one of Shaq’s closest modern facsimiles, and delivered a truly iconic moment.
I can’t stop looking at this image: all eyes, legs, and most importantly, hands. Enormous hands—of Embiid, of Kawhi—that seem to cluster around the presence of the ball like a Venus flytrap, or a crown roast, depending on how hungry you are. Despite the result of the play, in this one shot, it’s Embiid who is captured majestically. His silhouette is equal parts 1988 Jordan and an airborne mermaid. Kawhi is almost entirely enveloped. You can see his kicks, with gold claws gripping both sides of the shoe. You can see his focused right eye, the only part of his face not eclipsed by Embiid’s gargantuan body. But those hands. They rise above all else in focus. The ball is softly perched upon three of Kawhi’s distal interphalangeal joints, ready for launch. What I notice most, though, is where Embiid’s right hand is in relation to Kawhi’s. His fingertips barely reach Kawhi’s palm. For as draped in the presence of Embiid as he was, the shot itself? As clean a look as any Leonard fadeaway this season.
Still, it was tough. The entire game was tough. It wasn’t a beautiful performance by Leonard; it wasn’t even his usual perfunctory display of excellence. Leonard scored 41 points on 41 percent shooting, requiring 39 shots to get the Raptors past their demons. But that takes a certain level of star power to accomplish. That ability to push through a bad performance and create something transcendent from 40-plus minutes of struggle is why they brought Kawhi to the franchise without promise of his commitment to the team. It is a rare quality, one the team had only ever seen once before.
We tend to talk about Leonard as an emotionless curiosity; I’ve personally suggested the man has no discernible physical charisma. But you have to Kawhi-laugh at the drama and catharsis he delivered to the city of Toronto: the tremendous arc, the nauseating four bounces on the rim, the blue-tongued wail as he is nearly submerged by his teammates along the sideline. I’m still not sure whether he exudes much charisma on the court, but watching his game-winner again and again, it doesn’t matter: All of the color is within the lines; in the structure of his game and the lines and angles that he creates from.
An outstretched hand begets other outstretched hands, and Raptors fans filed out of the Scotiabank Arena hugging and high-fiving family, strangers, cops—from the arena, to Jurassic Park outside, to Union Station and beyond. We still have no idea whether this is enough for Kawhi, whether sending an entire city into a frenzy, having hordes of people march along the streets chanting your name, is enough for him to want to make this city his home. But in this moment, it sure feels like it is. That’s what happens when you find someone capable of turning nearly two decades of self-fulfilling prophecies into dust. You throw your hands up and start believing things might actually be different this time—that the Raptors might make the Finals, that Kawhi might actually stay. Because in the moment, why wouldn’t they?