To commemorate the NBA’s 75th anniversary season, NBA.com Philippines launched Iconic Plays, a series that dives into special moments from the league’s 75-year history. So far, we've covered MJ's 'The Last Shot’, Kobe and Shaq's alley-oop, Dr. J's reverse layup, and Olajuwon's game-winning tip-in. In the fifth installment, Charmie Lising dives into the Kawhi Leonard shot that broke the hearts of the Philadelphia 76ers in the 2019 NBA Playoffs.
Kawhi Leonard’s miraculous shot in the 2019 NBA Playoffs was one for the ages, and being the first Game 7 buzzer-beater in NBA history was only a small part of a dramatic story.
It all started with Kawhi’s strained relationship with the San Antonio Spurs, where he won his first championship and Finals MVP award. Kawhi was supposedly the heir to Tim Duncan’s throne in San Antonio, but a series of events – involving his quadriceps injury and his representative Uncle Dennis (Robertson) – led to arguments and an ugly breakup.
Kawhi only played nine games in the 2017-18 season, as the two camps could not agree on the appropriate ways to manage Kawhi’s injury. Even if his Spurs teammates implored for him to return in time for the playoffs, Kawhi did not. All attempts to patch up the relationship did not work out. Kawhi requested a trade to Los Angeles, his hometown, in the offseason of 2018.
The Spurs, after a year of uncertainty, ended up striking a deal with the Toronto Raptors. San Antonio shipped Kawhi and Danny Green to Toronto in exchange for franchise cornerstone and beloved star DeMar DeRozan, Jakob Poetl, and a protected 2019 first-round pick (which was used to draft Keldon Johnson).
The Raptors had just appointed Nick Nurse as their new head coach to replace Dwane Casey when Kawhi arrived for the 2018-19 season. They were coming off back-to-back second-round sweeps, and an Eastern Conference Finals loss before that, all at the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. They were still reeling from all the “LeBronto” jokes, even if LeBron had already moved to the West to join the Lakers.
With LeBron out of the way, the Raptors were hoping to get over the hump, though they still had Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antotokounmpo, that season’s MVP, and Philadelphia 76ers’ Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler to worry about.
The stage was set for a second-round matchup between the Raptors and the Sixers, a déjà vu of their second-round showdown in the 2001 NBA Playoffs. Vince Carter and Allen Iverson were the headliners of Toronto and Philly, respectively, at the time. The series extended to seven games, with Carter missing a potential series-clincher.
Eighteen years later, the Raptors found themselves in an eerily similar situation, having the final possession in a Game 7 against the Sixers. Instead of being down one, however, the score was tied 90-all with 4.2 seconds remaining.
The Raptors crowd was on their feet, anxiously awaiting their team’s fate.
Marc Gasol was tasked to inbound the ball. Pascal Siakam set a screen as Kawhi received the inbound pass at the top of the key. Ben Simmons kept in step with Kawhi before Embiid came to help and picked Kawhi up on the left wing. Kawhi ran to the corner, right in front of the Raptors bench.
Over the outstretched arm of Embiid, Kawhi launched a high-arcing baseline jumper. The final buzzer sounded just as the ball was reaching its peak trajectory. And then as if it knew what was at stake, the ball lingered on the rim and bounced multiple times.
On the first bounce, Kawhi held his follow-through. On the second bounce, Kawhi squatted on the floor. On the third and fourth bounce, Kawhi and everybody else stayed still, not taking their eyes off the ball.
Hope grew bigger for the Raptors, while doom came nearer for the Sixers with every bounce. It was the calm before the storm, the tranquility before the chaos.
As the ball finally dropped through the net, pandemonium ensued.
The shot was so crazy that it merited a wild reaction from the perpetually poker-faced Kawhi Leonard, who let out an intense scream while being mobbed by his teammates.
The Degree of Difficulty
In reality, the shot only took about two to three seconds, from the time the ball left Kawhi’s hands until it went in. But it felt like the game already went to overtime and five more minutes had passed.
It’s never easy to take a shot in front of a 7-foot defensive beast like Embiid. To do it with the clock winding down in a Game 7 with your season on the line (not to mention, an entire country’s championship hopes anchored on you)? It’s unimaginable.
There’s a reason why it was the first-ever Game 7 buzzer-beater in the NBA. It’s incredibly hard to close out a playoff series, especially if you’re down to a winner-take-all match. It’s a thousand times more difficult to get a good shot off with a split-second left on the clock.
Series-clinching buzzer-beaters are not new, and every one of those had been iconic in their own ways, but this Kawhi shot will always have its unique place in history. The four bounces gave it so much character – there’s no better depiction of the overused statement “it could have gone either way” than that Game 7 winner.
After crushing the Sixers’ title aspirations, the Raptors advanced to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they won against Antetokounmpo and the Bucks. Crowned Finals MVP, Kawhi continued to wreak havoc in the Raptors’ first-ever NBA Finals appearance, where they dethroned Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors.
Toronto held out some hope that Kawhi would re-sign with the Raptors after a memorable title run. But alas, it was not meant to be. Just a few weeks after the championship parade, Kawhi decided to come home and sign with the Los Angeles Clippers.
Kawhi has since formed a duo with Paul George, but they have yet to unleash their full potential due to injuries. George is currently out with an elbow injury, while Kawhi has not played since June when he suffered an ACL tear.
The Raptors, for their part, remained competitive in the first season following Kawhi’s departure. They finished second in the East, swept the Brooklyn Nets in the first round of the playoffs, but lost to the Boston Celtics in the second. Last season, they missed the playoffs altogether.
The 76ers are still contending and trusting the process, but not quite getting there. They were the East’s top seed last season, but they lost in Game 7 of their second-round battle against the Atlanta Hawks, similar to that fateful 2019 season when Kawhi broke their hearts.
At least the series against the Hawks did not end in another buzzer-beater. There’s only so much pain that the Sixers could take. But it did end in a rift with Ben Simmons, which, until now, has not yet been resolved.
Kawhi’s Game 7 buzzer-beater was as phenomenal as it could get. That shot proved that Kawhi was still one of the best (and deadliest) players in the world. That shot led to the Raptors’ first-ever NBA championship. More importantly, that shot erased more than two decades of frustration that Toronto fans had endured.
That shot – and Kawhi’s heroics – will forever be immortalized in Canadian lore. It barely even matters that he only stayed there for one season.