It might seem like yesterday to Canadian sports fans, but the biggest shot in the history of the Toronto Raptors happened three years ago Thursday.
Kawhi Leonard had flashed the skills that made him the most talented Raptor yet many times in what would be his lone season in Toronto and everyone knew he’d get the ball right after Philadelphia’s Jimmy Butler had stunned the sellout crowd with a game-tying driving layup.
But what he did next will be remembered for generations, even if it merely set the stage for two more epic series victories by the Raptors, which culminated in an NBA championship.
The Raptors-Sixers series was a classic too, a back-and-forth affair that went to seven games to the surprise of nobody. If Butler’s shot deflated the building, Leonard’s play livened it like never before.
An exhausted Leonard had missed a free throw that could have decided the contest prior to Butler’s score, but he dug deep to help prevent overtime.
Off the inbounds, Leonard took off, evaded stellar defender Ben Simmons, then somehow released his shot before gigantic Sixers centre, Joel Embiid, could close in on him.
As we wrote on the two-year anniversary:
And then, the ball fell through the hoop.
“It was great,” Leonard said afterward in typically understated fashion. “That’s something I never experienced before, Game 7, a game-winning shot. It was a blessing to be able to get to that point and make that shot and feel that moment.”
Indeed, it was the first series-winning shot in a seventh game in NBA history.
“The building. The eruption in that building,” Raptors television play-by-play voice Matt Devlin recalled over the phone when we asked him last year what he remembered most about the aftermath of the shot.
As Danny Green said at the time, the Raptors were thinking overtime.
“I think at first a lot of us were like, ‘Ah, it doesn’t look too good. Then it got one bounce and it was like, ‘OK.’And then the second bounce it was ‘Oh s –, we might have a chance here,’” Green had said in the Raptors locker room.
“It looked good, and then it hit the rim and then it was like, ‘OK, ah, I don’t know,’ … it was like, we finally got the little bounce,” Pascal Siakam said.
“I was watching it just like, ah, hit the rim, then I saw Serge (Ibaka) trying to jump to get the rebound and then my heart, I was like, ‘Serge don’t jump. Relax, relax.’ Because the ball kept bouncing and it was crazy. I’m just there watching it and I’m just there like, ‘ah, oh.’ So a lot of emotion going on, but definitely a great moment to be a part of.”
Ibaka would later say he would have had to retire if he’d accidentally goaltended the shot.
History forgets that Toronto only won a single quarter of Game 7, or that Leonard had missed 13 straight three-pointers in the series heading in and then missed six-of-seven in Game 7 before his shot. So he was probably due.
“Philadelphia, to me, was really their toughest opponent (of the run),” Devlin told the Sun last year.
And Kawhi’s shot was as tough as attempts get. “You’re fading, handed off from Simmons to Joel Embiid (defending you). The intensity, and then the crowd reaction and the jubilation is what stands out to me,” Devlin recalled.
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“It probably bounced four or five times. It seemed like it was 30 seconds, but probably took all of point-eight seconds,” Green said that evening.
“But once it went in I think everyone was just ridiculously excited. The whole building. I think they’re still yelling out there,” Green said.
They were yelling outside too and, in a twist of fate, on the three-year anniversary of Kawhi’s shot, the Toronto Maple Leafs can make Maple Leaf Square go berserk again if they finish off the Tampa Bay Lightning Thursday night.