“Kawhi upstairs, look at the clock, turn the corner, for the wiiiiiiin … … GOT IT … KAWHI LEONARD … WITH THE WINNER!” – Matt Devlin, Sportsnet
It’s May 12, 2019, game 7 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. Philadelphia 76ers against Toronto Raptors.
The Raptors had undergone a major makeover in the off-season. First, longtime head coach Dwane Casey was fired after another disheartening loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers of LeBron James in the previous year’s playoffs. He would be replaced by assistant Nick Nurse.
Then, the former center of the DeMar DeRozan franchise was dispatched to the San Antonio Spurs for a disgruntled and injured Kawhi Leonard and sniper Danny Green.
The Raptors’ new look ran second in the East, with Leonard pulling out every few games for what has become known as load management. At one point, he called the regular season “82 practices”.
Toronto vs. Philadelphia
After eliminating Orlando Magic in the eastern quarterfinals, Toronto met third-seeded Philadelphia with lead Joel Embiid and hired gun Jimmy Butler.
The teams last met in the playoffs in 2001 when the Raptors star Vince Carter clashed with 76-year-old enemy Allen Iverson. Losing 88-87 and two seconds before the end of Game 7, Toronto returned the ball to Carter with a move to the Eastern Finals on the line.
Carter missed, and it will be 15 years before the Raptors win another playoff series.
The 2019 series was hotly contested until the final 4.2 seconds. Embiid largely won the 76ers, with his crater team whenever he was seated. Likewise, Leonard wore the Raptors – the highlight being a three-point dagger in Game 4 to help Toronto, even the series.
Each team included standby free agents (Leonard, Butler and Tobias Harris of the 76ers), and the idea was that a trip to the eastern finals would help solidify a record of keeping them. A second round outing would likely seal the opposite spell.
WATCH | The 1st game 7, series-bat, buzzer-beater in NBA history:
Kyle Lowry, Guard of the Raptors: We only won a quarter [the first quarter]. There were many things that we could have done much better.
Fred VanVleet, guard of the Raptors: It was a round trip match. Not the prettiest of basketball. But that’s exactly the way this series has been.
Marc Gasol, center of the Raptors: Like any other game 7, every possession, every inch, every loose ball – that means a lot, of course. You know these games tilt one way or the other with little details. We played an incredible defense to get to this point. This is what you are trying to do – you are trying to create opportunities and chances to win the game and hopefully you will get a lucky bounce that will get you to the next round.
Danny Green, Raptors striker: Offensively, we didn’t do it. We did well defensively – we bounced and boxed. But we couldn’t get the pace we wanted or the open eyes.
Nick Nurse, Raptors coach: We actually had a little bit more control over the game at the end than it seemed. We led, led, led, led. And always by more than one possession, or at least three with the ball.
For almost two minutes at the end of the quarter, tied 85-85, no team can score. At the 1:41 mark, Leonard hits a disputed rider. A Pascal Siakam dunk places the Raptors at four, before Butler strikes a free kick. Leonard misses another jumper; Embiid responds with two additional free throws.
Down one with 11 seconds to go, the 76ers are forced to commit a foul. Leonard hits the first, but misses the second. Harris recovers the rebound and throws it at Butler, who strikes a layup that Serge Ibaka almost fails to block. 90-90. The nurse calls a time-out.
WATCH | Roundtable on the impact of The Shot:
Mark Blinch, photographer: During the time out, I took a quick look through all of my lenses and decided that I would go a little more cowardly than I had filmed before. I chose to shoot it with a looser lens that has less zoom. I wanted to get some of that atmosphere and try to stage everything.
Leonard: I was very crazy [after missing the free throw that led to Butler tying the game at 90-90]. I tried to go down and get a rebound. I probably should have sprinted to help out with Jimmy’s layout. But after that, I said to myself “whatever the room [coach] upright, I’m about to come in my place and shoot him, and shoot him with confidence. ”
Nurse: The programming was great. Danny [Green] was out, Marc and Serge [Ibaka] were there. So the four guys changed positions in the game, except Kawhi. Kawhi stayed in his place.
green: I was in the corner, on the bench, waiting for him to fall.
Nurse: I guess I didn’t really think about how I felt about working overtime.
Blinch: The classic basketball training shot photography is that whenever it’s a batter-type moment, you always want the ball, the basket, and the player in the frame.
Leonard: A few possessions before that, I had the same kind of shot of three and I knew I had to climb it even higher.
Lowry: It was the game, give ‘Whi the ball up. We played a game that we already played – give the ball to Whi, and it happened in its place and, basically, we looked at the greatness.
Nurse: Actually, I didn’t think he was going to take anything away. It kept bouncing more and more. And then Embiid came to fly. If the center reads it correctly, it can happen sometimes.
VanVleet: I thought there was no chance he would come home. Standing behind him, you could see the trajectory. It looked like it was going to the left.
Lowry: My view was in the other corner. He pulled it high enough where he gave himself a chance.
green: I thought it was going to be overtime at first. It didn’t look like it was on target. It bounced and it gives you a little light. It bounced again and you say to yourself, OK, we can have a hit here.
WATCH | Full recap of game 7 between the Raptors and the 76ers:
Leonard: Embiid kept me, you know he is taller, longer than me. So I end up finding a place I like, I’m working on, I end up coming to a place and I knew I had to pull it high.
Gasol: You felt the electricity in the building. Everything stopped.
Norman Powell, Guard of the Raptors: The anticipation of the coup, we didn’t know what to do. I didn’t know what to do for a fraction of a second. Then I ran to Kawhi.
green: And everyone has gone mad.
VanVleet: I was right there in the mix. It’s a fine line between being happy and not trying to hurt yourself. You don’t want to be trampled and rolled over. No one fell, which was good.
Leonard: It was great. This is something I have never experienced before – Game 7, winning shot. So it was a blessing to be able to get to this point and make this move and feel this moment. This is something I can look back at in my career.
Blinch: Usually, for big moments, I take a minute to take a break and I don’t look directly at the camera. I somehow pray that it is there. But when I stepped back when I saw the shot with the bullet through the iron, I was relieved.
Seerat Sohi, Yahoo! NBA sports reporter: The four bounces were probably the most important part because it was that moment when everyone in the building was silent and it was almost like a religious experience.
Blinch: I always say that these four rebounds created incredible tension in the arena. I don’t think that the picture would look as good if the ball went straight in. It was the second that created all the tension in the arena.
Lowry: I think the only other time I saw him like that [in the arena] was when we made the playoffs after the [five-year] drought, first game, game 1 against Brooklyn [in 2014]. Other than that, it wasn’t like that.
Doug Smith, Toronto Star Raptors reporter: There was a justification measure for [Raptors general manager] Masai Ujiri for dismissing Dwane Casey and trading DeMar DeRozan… I don’t think anyone was surprised [Kawhi] took the hit, but it was sort of a cathartic moment for the franchise that had undergone such a big change.
Then Hi: I had never seen anything like this where there were 20,000 people who, a few seconds ago, were all shouting and then we all hold our breath, we all look exactly the same. And for this fan base that expected things to never work, it ultimately works when everyone is watching.
Black-smith: It’s the beautiful part of sport that great moments are essentially destiny. If Vince’s enters and Kawhi’s not, what is the difference in the path of the franchise? Sport? One of my first reactions was that it was a mirror image 18 years earlier.
Blinch: I am not sure that we will have a moment of this magnitude again. Maybe we will win again, of course, but I think in this dramatic way, what he left Toronto and Canada as a country, I am happy.
Nurse: I thought we better take advantage of this day. I even said to the team “it was a hell of a streak and it was a team we just beat. “