TORONTO — The NBA playoffs had never seen a buzzer beater at the end of a Game 7, and then Kawhi Leonard caught the ball with four seconds remaining, near the top of the key, with the Sixers and Raptors tied. He dribbled back to near mid-court, and then wound his way around the three point-line and down to the opposite corner. Ben Simmons was chasing him and then Joel Embiid came out to contest the shot. When the ball was bouncing around the rim, Pascal Siakam said he was worried about Serge Ibaka trying to interfere for a putback. Then he winced remembering each bounce on the rim. "Ahhhh, ohhhh, ahhh," Siakam said.
Danny Green was on the bench saw the ball go up over Embiid's outstretched arms. He thought it was short. "Then it got one bounce [on the rim]," Green said. "And it was like, ‘OK.’ Then the second bounce it was, ‘Oh s---. We might have a chance here.’ It probably bounced like four or five times. It seemed like it was 30 seconds, even though it was probably only like 0.8 seconds. Then once it went in, everybody was just ridiculously excited. The whole building. I think there are still people yelling out there."
On an elevator a minute after the shot went in, a few Toronto front office executives were sweaty and out of breath. "Just hanging right there [on the rim]!" one of them said. Inside the locker room an assistant coach laughed and yelled: "Never in doubt!" Kyle Lowry walked toward the doors and said, "Just one more step. Another step." Nearby, a staffer told each player who entered the locker room, "Pack your bags! Pack your bags for Milwaukee." A few minutes later Raptors President Masai Ujiri emerged from the locker room greeted by his daughter, Zahara, who asked, "Are you proud? Are you proud?" Ujiri hugged his daughter and told her, "I'm very proud."
This was arguably the greatest moment in Raptors franchise history, and it was all made possible by the player at the center of the celebrations Sunday. Kawhi was mobbed by teammates the second the ball fell through the hoop, and then he was celebrating and screaming just like everyone else. "That's something I've never experienced before," he said, explaining a rare outburst of emotion at the buzzer. "It was a blessing to be able to get to that point, and make that shot, and feel that moment."
This year in Toronto began with whispers around the NBA that Kawhi, after missing nearly an entire season with a mysterious quadicreps injury, might not be the same player he'd been with the Spurs. Would he still have his explosion? Could he stay on the floor? How would he look outside the San Antonio system? Most of those concerns were alleviated almost as soon as the season began. Leonard looked phenomenal through his first two weeks with the Raptors, Toronto began the season 6–0, and somewhere in the middle of that stretch, an executive from another NBA team texted SI, "Looks like we all f---ed up not trading for Kawhi."
In the playoffs now, any concerns about post-Spurs Kawhi have given way to fascination over just how great he really is, and how much longer all of this will continue in Toronto. In the middle of the Sixers series, Marc Gasol told the media that Leonard has an extra gear for these playoff games. "We lean on him a lot," Gasol said after Toronto prevailed 92–90 in Game 7. "Sometimes a little too much. He can create a shot out of nothing. He's a mismatch all around." As Siakam added: "He's one of the greats, man. Every night."
The entire postseason has been a reminder that Kawhi has a real claim as the best basketball player alive. He's second behind only Kevin Durant in postseason scoring, and when called upon to short-circuit an opponent, his defense remains as disruptive as anyone in the NBA. On offense, he finished the first two rounds of the playoffs with an obscene 67.8% True Shooting Percentage, and he made it look routine. Where players like KD, Steph Curry, and James Harden make a living on tough shots, Kawhi uses his strength to create space, squares his shoulders, and makes his jumpers look easy. He's as clinical on the perimeter as Tim Duncan was once in the post.
Asked to join the internet's ongoing debate between Durant and Leonard, Toronto point guard Fred VanVleet said Sunday, "Kawhi." Asked to explain his pick, VanVleet smirked and said, "Because he's my friend." Then he added: "Honestly, I don't really care. If you're in the discussion, you're doing something right. He's up there with the best of 'em, and at that point it's splitting hairs."
Green played in San Antonio, came to Toronto in the Kawhi trade, and has been there for Leonard's entire career. "Nobody saw this coming," he said after Game 7. "They saw a guy with big hands, wide shoulders, a defensive threat, could be a monster. They did not see the explosiveness on the offensive end. He's been an MVP candidate the last couple years he's been on the floor. I remember him coming in as a rookie and thinking, '[The Spurs] traded George Hill for this guy?' And they loved George. I'm like, 'He's pretty good, he's decent, but I don't see it.' But he got better each year, man. Amazing player."
As for the future, Leonard remains an unrestricted free agent this summer. He's spent the entire year declining interview requests and he hasn't committed to any long-term plans. All we know for certain is that he's from Los Angeles, he recently bought a house in San Diego, and among several free–agent suitors certain to make calls in July, the Lakers and Clippers will be at the front of the line.
The Raptors have said that he's getting more comfortable as the year unfolds, but we're talking about the most inscrutable star in the NBA. Everyone is wary of drawing definitive conclusions, and that's before considering that Raptors like Green and Gasol will have free agency decisions as well. "You kind of segment it a little bit in your brain," Toronto GM Bobby Webster says. "We all do. You're trying to be intensely focused on the moment and evaluate what's going on game-to-game. And then you have your moments to think about, 'OK where is this team going?' I will say, we've known the situation since we did the deal for Kawhi. It's a reality we've lived with for nine months."
"We'll figure that out when we get there," Green says of the summer. "Right now we're still enjoying the moment and trying to win a championship. We're focused on the here-and-now. We'll worry about that later. Obviously what happens with the here and now may dictate what happens later, but we're going to enjoy each other, be in this moment."
It's hard to know where any of this leads or how much the rest of the playoffs could decide, but with the likely MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo and the top-seeded Bucks waiting in the Eastern Conference finals, it bears mentioning that what Kawhi has already delivered is wilder than most Raptors fans could have imagined. His Game 7 heroics came 18 years after Vince Carter missed his own Game 7 buzzer beater in the second round. That game is still one of the most heartbreaking defeats in franchise history and the parallels between the two game-winners are eerie—both from the corner, both bouncing off the back of the rim, both against the Sixers, both for the chance to advance to an Eastern Conference matchup with Milwaukee—except that Leonard's shot went in.
The Raptors have been waiting for things to bounce their way. They've been good and respectable for a long time and they've had All-Stars like Carter, Chris Bosh, and DeMar DeRozan, but in the postseason, disappointment has been the baseline. With Leonard at the center of everything, there's new reason to believe. Even against a favored Bucks team in the next round, Kawhi is one reason to think twice before dismissing the Raptors entirely. (Asked about the team's matchup with Milwaukee, Lowry said, "They've been pretty dominant." Siakam smiled and refused to assess the Raptors' chances: "I learned from Kawhi last series. He told me not to answer those questions. I'm going to take a trick from Kawhi's book on this one.")
The ultimate lesson of this season in Toronto is that there's a difference between an All-Star and a superstar. The latter is a player who's so good that he gives his team a chance against anyone, and so reliable that the entire roster becomes more confident as a result. The Raptors trailed the Sixers in the second, third, and fourth quarters of Game 7, but each time, they found a way to retake control. The game and the NBA's entire second round may have been punctuated by a euphoric jumper that hit every part of the rim before falling—basically a sports movie in real life—but that ending shouldn't distract anyone from the 38 points Kawhi had beforehand, or the 34.7 PPGon 54% shooting he averaged over the course of the series.
That kind of performance is why the Raptors traded for Leonard last summer. It's why the rest of the NBA has spent the past month wondering how the league might change if he leaves in free agency this summer. It's why everyone in Toronto will be desperately hoping he stays.