“Look at the owl on me”
In the grand scheme of these playoffs, it is a singular moment that, taken to any other end, wouldn’t have mattered. The capital-A Adult Jimmy Butler shot just preceding it had tied the game at 90 apiece, meaning it would have gone to overtime anyway. Like the Damian Lillard shot against Oklahoma City before it – but also, so very unlike the Damian Lillard shot against Oklahoma City before it – the fortune of the shooter’s team would, at the very least, have been no worse in the moment after had he missed.
When Kawhi’s moonshot clinked-clanked-clunked-and-clinked-again before dropping in, sealing the Toronto Raptors’ 92-90 victory and sending the representatives of the lone Canadian outpost in the NBA to the Eastern Conference Finals, the basketball world stopped, if only for a brief respite. Now, with that ball through the hoop and the Raptors on to a date with the Milwaukee Bucks, as many questions have arisen as were answered.
For Kawhi Leonard, perhaps the foremost two-way force in the league and an ex-Finals MVP, it was a moment of redemption following a two-year period during which he has endured much more scrutiny than his preseason laugh would betray. It was the first-ever Game 7 buzzer-beater in NBA history, and for most involved, the wait was worth it.
From the moment Zaza Pachulia set his foot down ahead of Leonard’s with the Spurs up 25 on the Warriors in Game 1 of the 2017 West finals, to the prolonged injury recovery, to the eventual trade demand and subsequent meeting with Gregg Popovich, Leonard has had an atypical transition from post-Tim Duncan bastion of Spurs excellence to the Savior of the North.
If surrounded Kawhi Leonard all season: if he can play like he did pre-injury; if his shooting continues its rapid, and sustained, improvement; if the good people of Toronto embrace him despite his forcing the team to trade away one of the most beloved players in franchise history and a close friend of new running mate Kyle Lowry; if, if, if.
Now, with a fiery Lowry and the blossoming Pascal Siakam in tow, Leonard has brought the Raptors franchise and the city of Toronto to the cusp of Eastern Conference supremacy, with only the presumptive MVP candidate, his own merry troupe of gunners alongside him, standing in the way. If Kawhi Leonard didn’t answer all of those questions in a 39-shot performance as uncharacteristically bombastic as his postgame interview, well: you must be a Sixers fan, and an irrational one at that.
As for Philadelphia, the cloud thickens and will get darker every hour, on the hour, until the clock strikes midnight on July 1st. At that point, Sixers free agents-to-be Butler, JJ Redick and Tobias Harris will survey the respective markets for their services. Rookie general manager Elton Brand will have his own choices to make, starting with contract terms for those three starters as well as taking a look at head coach Brett Brown and the long-term viability of the Joel Embiid-Ben Simmons partnership.
As was the case for most of the season, when the Sixers were at their best in this series, it was when Embiid and Simmons were doing damage. Indeed, in Game 4, the Sixers’ biggest win over Toronto, Embiid was a game-high +31, going off for 33 points, 10 rebounds and five blocks.
Simmons pitched in 10 points, seven rebounds and seven assists on 5-13 shooting, though his playmaking more than made up for any scoring deficiencies. It was the kind of show that invites the stale LeBron comparisons and will, it seems, invite LeBron trade speculation this summer.
For now, though, that is neither here nor there. What remains is the moment: Kawhi Leonard, firing over Embiid and Simmons in the corner, his wingspan just long enough to get a reasonable look over two players larger than he. The eternity passing after the ball hit the front rim, improbably spinning backward…connecting with the same rim…spinning…other side of the rim…before gently grazing the rim one more time, a bow at the conclusion of a waltz. The North, for a moment, the center of the galaxy.
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 And two-time Defensive Player of the Year…and two-time First Team All-NBA…and three-time All-Star…
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