The 2019 NBA postseason hit its midway point when Kawhi Leonard’s fadeway from the corner bounced—four times!—and fell through the rim on Sunday. As we await a conference finals of Raptors-Bucks in the East and Trail Blazers–Warriors in the West, our staff takes stock of the best and worst so far, and looks ahead to what’s to come.
Describe Kawhi’s game-winner in 150 words or fewer.
Dan Devine: Four dribbles; four bounces; forever. Whatever happens for the Raptors the rest of the way, and whatever Leonard decides to do this summer, they and he will always have this. It’s not winning a championship. But that moment—that hearts-in-your-throat pause, the explosion once it plinked through, the exultation of Raptors fans getting 18 years of history off their backs—might not have felt all that far away from one.
Jonathan Tjarks: Kawhi is Thanos: “Fun isn’t something one considers when balancing the universe. But this does put a smile on my face.”
Rodger Sherman: It might have cost the scientists who engineered Kawhi Leonard $100 billion to install the “quadruple-doink a ball through the hoop” technology, but damn, it was worth it.
Haley O’Shaughnessy: Kawhi’s shot felt like returning to your car just in time for it not to be towed. Like making your flight after waking up an hour late, or getting a better grade than expected, or the rain stopping the moment you step outside. The shot shouldn’t have gone in. It was short—short enough that the rim should’ve sent the ball back onto the court and the game into overtime. It wasn’t supposed to be OK, then it worked out anyway. And when you think about it, that’s the stuff that some of the best playoff moments are made of.
Justin Verrier: Kawhi’s comments about the shot were predictably robotic. “We work on that every day.” “I was disappointed I missed that free throw [earlier].” “I just wanted to leave it all out on the floor.” But the magic of the moment comes from the result being little more than a total fluke. Leonard may have drilled his movements hundreds of times before, and he may be one of the league’s best fadeaway jump shooters, with the skill and savvy and timing to shoot over the world’s most athletic 7-foot human. But the basket and all of its implications—including the futures of the Sixers, the Raptors, and Leonard himself—literally came down to the way the ball bounced. There’s something special in how simple that is.
Paolo Uggetti: Put the soft rims of the Scotiabank Arena in the rafters immediately.
D.J. Foster: My brother-in-law is an amateur conspiracy theorist and an NBA fan, which is basically the worst combination of person. His favorite theory, more than frozen envelopes or point-shaving or any other entry-level conspiracy stuff, is that every NBA basketball and rim is infused with magnets, and that Adam Silver is just doing cool Magneto things all the time based on who he wants to win. So, yeah, Kawhi’s game-winner that sat on the rim forever and dropped in absolutely makes me want all the holidays canceled forever.
Kawhi’s four-bouncer or Dame’s 37-footer—which was the better playoff game-winner?
Sherman: This is not even close!!! Damian Lillard is one of two humans in the sport’s history with the skill and confidence to make launching a 30-footer with a game on the line a somewhat rational decision. I still can’t believe he even attempted that shot—and that he swished it. Kawhi is just one of the thousands forced into a baseline drive and an uncomfortable, heavily contested look with the game on the line, and one of the few lucky enough to see a brick bobble into a game-winner. Game 7 makes Kawhi’s shot more meaningful in the arc of the Raptors’ season, but Dame’s shot is a legend-maker.
Verrier: Dame’s. The stakes were much higher for the Raptors, who were not only playing in a do-or-die Game 7, but would have faced the repercussions of their all-in gamble on Kawhi had they gone on to lose in overtime. But, like with the dunk contest, you have to reward intent and execution. Lillard had heard enough of Russell Westbrook’s barking, so he decided to not only try to end the Oklahoma City Thunder’s season right then and there, but to do so from a distance that Westbrook, amid a historically abysmal shooting season, couldn’t even fathom. A lucky bounce or two (or four) is miraculous; forcibly removing your opponent is electrifying. It’s a slight difference, but an important one.
Tjarks: Kawhi’s four-bouncer. It was in a Game 7 between two teams with legitimate title aspirations and no guarantee they’ll ever get this far again. If Dame had missed his shot, it would only have delayed the inevitable for OKC. The stakes were so much higher on Sunday. We’ll talk about that shot forever if Jimmy Butler leaves.
O’Shaughnessy: I’d pick a favorite child before calling one of these better than the other. They’re different. They’re their own shots. One sailed 37 feet horizontally, the other spent its hang time vertically. Dame’s was beautiful—a good shot, contrary to what one defender may believe. A perfect swish and a perfect reaction. Kawhi’s was imperfect. A clunker. Dame knew his shot was going in; Kawhi, squatting down on the sideline and watching it bounce once, twice, three times, and a fourth before finally relenting, turned into a spectator like the rest of us. I won’t pick because they’re both shots we’ll be telling our kids (even the non-favorite) about forever.
Devine: It feels ridiculous not to pick only the second buzzer-beating game/series-winner in NBA playoff history. And yet: I’m going with Dame. There’s just something striking to me about the calm of it all: The way he sizes up Paul George, staring him down, just knowing that he’s got the game in his hand; the ease of the setup and launch (“Pound dribble. Side step. Raise up.”), rendering the defender completely irrelevant to the proceedings; ball hitting net just as the shot clock lights up; the clean splash, the twine popping as the clock hits zero; and Lillard, completely unsurprised by what he’s just wrought, bidding farewell to the vanquished and accepting his teammates’ adulation as if all he’d done was make sure to grab extra napkins with the lunch order, rather than hit one of the most audaciously icy shots of all time. What I’ll remember about Kawhi’s shot is how unbelievable it felt. What I’ll remember about Dame’s is the exact opposite.
Foster: Lillard’s game-winner was like if Tupac dropped “Hit ’Em Up” in one take and Biggie had to answer a bunch of questions from reporters immediately afterward. There hasn’t been an NBA beef as spicy as Dame-Russ in a long time, and for it to be handled like that in front of a killer crowd with people pointing to their wrists before it even happened? Good on Toronto for exorcising some playoff demons, but Dame’s game-winner had all the juice.
Uggetti: It’s hard to go against what was, essentially, a perfect sequence: Lillard pulling up, the shot going in, his condescendingly waving goodbye to the Thunder, and his giving a deadpan look to the camera while being mobbed by his teammates. Both shots won the series, but even though Leonard’s was in a Game 7, Lillard’s had a flawless execution.
Who’s the biggest winner of the playoffs so far?
Foster: It has to be the Bucks, right? After wasting no time with the Pistons and playing travel agent for Kyrie Irving, the Bucks were able to spend a nice Sunday with their moms watching the Raptors fight tooth and nail in order to escape the 76ers in a grueling Game 7. Milwaukee is well-rested, which matters more than we probably talk about, and is getting back a fresh 180-shooter in Malcolm Brogdon. Scripting an easier path to the Eastern Conference finals would have been tough to do.
Verrier: The Knicks. Despite a wretched run under James Dolan, the Knicks have a long and storied history dotted with some of the NBA’s best moments. There was Willis Reed’s wheelchair game. Larry Johnson’s four-point play. The “frozen envelope” draft that brought them Patrick Ewing. And John Starks’s dunk on the Jordan Bulls. But this Woj tweet might trump them all:
Early indications on Kevin Durant's lower leg, league source tells ESPN: It doesn't appear to be an Achilles injury.— Adrian Wojnarowski (@wojespn) May 9, 2019
Lives flashed before Knicks fans’ timelines when Kevin Durant left Game 5 of the Warriors’ second-round series clutching his right calf. The initial fear, propagated by Reggie Miller on the TNT broadcast, was that KD had torn his Achilles—perhaps the most devastating injury a basketball player can get. One freak accident threatened to undercut a whole year’s worth of intentional failure. But as New York moved on to lusting after the next multi-time All-Star their team did nothing to deserve, the diagnosis came back far more positive: mild calf strain; re-evaluated in one week. And with that, the Knicks’ master plan of falling ass-backward into a contender was back on.
Tjarks: The Bucks. They embarrassed the Celtics and possibly ended them as a title contender before they ever had a chance to get going, if that loss pushes Kyrie out the door and prevents them from making an offer for Anthony Davis. This feels like the start of something special in Milwaukee.
Uggetti: Kawhi, who in the span of less than a year has gone from being the disgruntled star who wanted out of San Antonio to a playoff god carrying a franchise and a city. I guess the real winner, in some sense, is Masai Ujiri. The Raptors team president took a risk by trading away the franchise’s most beloved player, DeMar DeRozan. The move made sense, given Toronto’s biggest playoff impediment, LeBron, had gone west. But the decision is now paying off in the biggest way, even if Kawhi doesn’t stay.
O’Shaughnessy: All the fresh faces. Portland hasn’t made a conference finals in 20 years, and even though it’ll face an institution in Golden State, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have given two series’ worth of proof that they’re more ready than they’ve ever been. The East, meanwhile, was dominated by one man for more than a decade. Now that conference finals features East-newbie Kawhi and the future face of the league, Giannis Antetokounmpo, who hadn’t advanced past the first round before this postseason. If the Bucks win, it will be the organization’s first Finals appearance since 1974; if the Raptors win, it will be their first ever.
Devine: If Kawhi’s shot and the rapture that ensued moved the needle in any meaningful way toward him deciding to stay in Toronto this summer, it’s Masai Ujiri, whose gamble-that-wasn’t-really-a-gamble of trading for Leonard has already produced the most memorable win in franchise history, and could continue to pay dividends for years to come. Leonard himself’s not a bad pick, either, as he turned in a superheroic effort against Philly—34.7 points, 9.9 rebounds, and 4.0 assists per game in a series played at a snail’s pace; the highest true shooting percentage of any high-usage player in Round 2; customarily excellent defense on Ben Simmons, Jimmy Butler, and anybody else he had to check—to firmly re-establish his candidacy for the title of Best in the World.
Right now, though, I kind of think the answer is Giannis Antetokounmpo. He, too, has been unbelievable through the first two rounds of the postseason, making quick work of the Pistons and, after about six tetchy quarters to start, utterly destroying the Celtics. He also has an increasingly enticing path to the promised land. The Raptors will enter the Eastern Conference finals having barely taken a deep breath after a seven-game war with Philly that went down to the final possession. The Warriors have already gone through two grueling series to start the postseason, and are now without Kevin Durant. The Bucks, on the other hand, have played only one game more than the minimum through two rounds, Antetokounmpo has averaged just 31.4 minutes per game thus far, and Malcolm Brogdon is now healthy.
I’m not saying the Bucks are going to win it all. I’m just saying that the way the first two rounds have unfolded seem to benefit Giannis and Milwaukee more than just about anybody else.
Who’s the biggest loser of the playoffs so far?
Foster: The Houston Rockets. Imagine being stuck in an Edge of Tomorrow time loop in which you’ve suffered countless defeats. You think you have every moving part accounted for this time, only you don’t, and now you have to go all the way back to training camp to face a painfully familiar 82-game slog before you have another chance to take down the final boss. It would be an unsatisfying end to the story arc, but the Rockets might need the Warriors to fold in on themselves before they can ever move on to the next level.
Tjarks: The 76ers. This season was at least conference-finals-or-bust. It’s hard to know what the plan is now. Build around Joel Embiid, who can’t stay healthy, and Ben Simmons, who can’t make a jumper? The only thing worse than not keeping Butler and Tobias Harris is paying them $300 million to be underutilized while still not having a point guard or enough depth. Can you really pay Golden State–level luxury-tax payments for a team that doesn’t fit well together?
Sherman: You ever lose a playoff series in your 2K dynasty and decide to just start over? The Celtics went from “potential Finals contender” to that in five games.
Devine: The recency-bias answer is the Rockets, and specifically James Harden and Chris Paul, two all-time greats who continue to run aground against the Warriors and might have just missed their best shot to topple the league’s principal power. Big picture, though, I think it’s still Russell Westbrook, because I’m not sure Harden and Paul will bear the brunt of Houston’s second-round loss as much as Russ’s reputation will have to wear OKC’s first-round ouster.
As much as I love the boundless energy and chaos-creation of Westbrook’s game, a third straight first-round exit invites questions—about leadership and shot selection; about skill development and how a player of this type can improve on the wrong side of 30; about how a team so dependent on him can improve while paying him $171.1 million over the next four seasons; and about what, if anything, Oklahoma City can do to return to legitimate contention with Westbrook as its cornerstone. The loss to Portland felt like confirmation that Westbrook has dropped down a tier, or maybe more, in the ranks of the game’s best players. That might not be fair, but it’s the price of the consistent postseason shortfalls that he and the Thunder have experienced ever since Durant left town.
O’Shaughnessy: Houston. It was to the Rockets’ benefit that they met the Warriors in the playoffs as soon as possible in order to send out the freshest version of Chris Paul. But now Houston—a team that was specifically built to counter the Warriors—has fallen to Golden State for a second straight year without another Western Conference finals appearance to show for it. This could be the last run for the dynasty in the Bay; the only thing as unrelenting as Golden State’s dominance is the rumor mill about how unhappy its star(s) are. But it’s not as simple for Houston as just “waiting the Warriors out.” Paul’s injury history is exacerbating the aging process, and it’ll be interesting to see what of the Point God remains after another 82 games of iso-heavy basketball.
What result so far will have the biggest effect on the offseason?
Verrier: Boston losing four straight to Milwaukee, and the comments that followed. Even as the discord evolved from subtext to text, the breadth of talent on the Celtics roster made it impossible to completely write them off. Every bit of objective and subjective information over the past two months suggested that something wasn’t quite right in Brighton—but then, well, there’s Kyrie Irving and Jayson Tatum; and Al Horford is still a terror on defense; and …
Now we can say, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that this team was doomed. The Celtics aren’t even trying to hide it anymore. Brad Stevens took the blame. Terry Rozier sounded off. Irving apologized a few days after a horrid shooting performance in Round 2. Boston is probably best situated to not only execute a Davis trade, but have enough left over to make a go of it with him, yet there’s something core-deep that needs fixing first. Danny Ainge would probably rather lose a limb than a talent like Irving for nothing, but Kyrie walking in free agency could wind up being addition by subtraction.
Foster: Philadelphia probably would have run it back with everyone if it had gotten past the Raptors and advanced to the Eastern Conference finals. But what now? Is Brett Brown’s job safe? Are Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris less likely to come back in free agency? Will Joel Embiid be so upset with this result that he’ll make his whole summer look like a Rocky training montage? Rookie GM Elton Brand could get a crash course on how quickly one loss can alter a franchise’s course.
Devine: Feels like the answer is the Celtics flaming out against Milwaukee—whether Irving stays or goes, what impact that has on the Davis trade talks, the quietly interesting question of what Al Horford decides to do with his $30.1 million player option, etc. For a positive spin, though, let’s say Golden State closing out the Rockets with five quarters of good, old-fashioned Splash Brothers scorching and #StrengthInNumbers. Maybe a reminder of what’s been at the heart of the Warriors’ dynasty all along helps solidify Durant’s decision to move on in pursuit of a different challenge, ensures that owner Joe Lacob will back up the Brink’s truck to keep both Klay Thompson and Draymond Green around, and provides the reset-button smash to more effectively level the playing field in both conferences.
O’Shaughnessy: Too much can fluctuate this summer in Philadelphia for its loss to Toronto not to matter the most up to this point. Because while Houston and OKC’s premature eliminations are underwhelming for both, neither has the cap space to really shake anything up in the offseason outside of a massive trade. If the Sixers did advance to the conference finals, it might’ve been enough to convince Jimmy Butler and/or Tobias Harris to stay—the former wants to be in the best position to win, and the latter has never been on such a successful team. At the same time, the loss could’ve convinced the organization that this isn’t a starting five worth doubling down on, or that its head coach isn’t the man to handle the post-Process expectations.
Uggetti: The way Boston went out, blown away by Giannis and the Bucks, makes it feel like this is the beginning of the end. Nothing has indicated that Kyrie still wants to be there, and the way he and the Celtics flamed out already has some Boston fans waving goodbye. Danny Ainge will end up doing something. But it doesn’t seem like he’ll get to realize his vision of Irving playing alongside Davis—at least in green.
Tjarks: It’s hard to say. Rajon Rondo seemed so confident last week that Butler is gone that maybe all this stuff is predetermined. Maybe KD, Kawhi, Kyrie, and Butler are leaving no matter what happens in the playoffs.
Two rounds are in the books. Now who’s the favorite?
Tjarks: The Warriors are still the favorite. They are the Warriors. They are the favorite until someone beats them. Especially since they get a conference finals opponent that allows them to bring back KD, and maybe even DeMarcus Cousins, slowly. It couldn’t have set up better for them. They couldn’t have kept Boogie on the floor against the Rockets but they would have poisoned their relationship with him if they had taken him off.
O’Shaughnessy: The Warriors are the favorite, even if Kevin Durant is injured and Steph Curry is fouling like a rookie and Klay Thompson is (reportedly) discontent.
Verrier: The Warriors, the team that didn’t get a point from their two-time MVP for a half and didn’t have their two-time Finals MVP for the entire game and still closed out their only real challenger in the West. But the Bucks aren’t far back. They’ve lost just one game so far, their playoff net rating (15.2) is elite, and their young MVP candidate is only getting stronger as the spotlight grows (31.0 PER, best in the playoffs). If Durant is diminished by the calf injury in the Finals, a transition of power to the East may happen earlier than anyone expected.
Devine: Warriors, still, but if I were a bettor, I’d think really hard about buying the Bucks as the underdog that, if you’ve been paying attention, they really haven’t been all season long.
Foster: Golden State getting all riled up about being an underdog one time and riding a faux–“No one believed in us!” wave to another title seems about as likely as every announcing crew next series reminding us that Damian Lillard is from Oakland. The Warriors are inevitable.
Sherman: As always, the team with Jonas Jerebko.
Uggetti: The Warriors. [Russell Westbrook voice] Next question.
What interests you most in the next two rounds?
Foster: The “best player in the league” conversation is finally getting interesting again. With LeBron on the decline and unable to defend his crown this postseason, the performance of every other major star feels a little more magnified than usual. That the players with the most realistic cases (Steph, Kawhi, Giannis, Durant) to take the throne are all on a collision course for each other should make for appointment television.
Devine: Whether Toronto can give Kawhi enough help to make a real series of it against a deep and damn good Bucks team. How much Lillard has left in the tank at this point after shooting just 41 percent from the floor and 29 percent from 3 against Denver, because the Blazers need Round 1 Dame to have any shot at making Golden State sweat. When Durant is ready to return from his calf strain, and how he looks when he does. Whether the Warriors look like they’re ready to say goodnight to the KD era, or get galvanized enough by proximity to immortality to keep the league in a sleeper hold for a few more seasons.
Sherman: Giannis-Kawhi feels like a Pacific Rim sequel, and I don’t know which 800-foot-tall robot is going to win.
Verrier: Is the NBA’s next great team right in front of us? More than a few statistical indicators suggested the Bucks had built something better than regular-season good, but a roster lacking in blue-chip prospects and the baked-in notions created by preseason expectations left some lingering doubts, even as their win total blew past 50. Well, Milwaukee has obliterated its competition through two rounds, and looks like a heavy favorite against a Raptors team that’s all of a sudden reliant on Kobe Bryant’s playbook. Now the question is whether the Bucks are good enough to seize the crown from the champs before KD even has a chance to walk.
O’Shaughnessy: Whoever escapes the East. This is the beginning of a postseason legacy for Giannis and the continuation of one for Kawhi. It could be the official start for this edition of the Bucks, or it could be this Raptors team’s last chance.
Uggetti: What the results could mean for the futures of each team left standing, and the league. Two teams have the fate of a superstar hanging in the balance; the other two just want to prove that their core is ready to take the next step. How much will the games affect what we may see play out in free agency? Will Draymond put on the hard sell again and convince Durant to stay, or will KD be in a Knicks uniform next season?
Tjarks: Bucks vs. Warriors in the Finals. Two best teams in the league. The team who has now vs. the team who has next.