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Kawhi’s Buzzer-Beater Might Be Felt Around The League

Early on in Sunday’s Game 7 between the Raptors and Sixers, TNT announcer Kevin Harlan deemed the winner-take-all matchup one that “only a mother could love,” a reference to the horrendous shooting display the teams put on in the early going.

Somewhat surprisingly, Kawhi Leonard — arguably the best player of this postseason so far, who came into Game 7 averaging 34 points and shooting 57 percent for the series — was part of the lackluster shot-making for a considerable chunk of the game. The Toronto star logged an uncharacteristically high volume, taking 30 shots through three quarters,1 making only 10.

But then came the fourth period, and with it Leonard’s miraculous game-winning shot that, by bouncing off the rim four times before falling into the basket, not only saved Toronto’s season, but also could set off a chain of events that may alter the NBA landscape.

From ABC News:

We should be clear here: Leonard wasn’t shooting well during the first three quarters, but his struggles stemmed from Philadelphia finally putting its foot down and aggressively pressuring him, sometimes sending an early double-team at him to either force the ball out of his hands or force him to shoot over two defenders at once. (We wrote earlier in the series that the Sixers would likely try that strategy at some point, given that Leonard ranked as the NBA’s least-efficient wing player when he was blitzed or trapped in pick-and-roll plays.)

Beyond that, there were many possessions on Sunday during which the other four Raptors simply didn’t have much going when Kawhi wasn’t taking matters into his own hands. Yes, Kyle Lowry made several hustle plays (particularly on the offensive glass) that stood out. And Serge Ibaka, with his 17 points on 10 shots, was an enormous help. But Leonard still had an outsize amount of weight on his shoulders from an offensive standpoint. And as such, he looked to shoot more than normal, with his usually sparkling efficiency taking a hit because of it.

But similar to Stephen Curry — who was objectively awful in the first halves of Games 5 and 6 against Houston this past week before going scorched earth in the final periods — Leonard saved his best for last on Sunday. After logging a 4-of-14 third quarter, Leonard drilled 6 of 9 attempts for 15 points in the fourth. He ultimately finished with 41 points on the day.

Of course, no shot was bigger than the rainbow-arcing 21-footer that caught every part of the iron, which will be talked about in Toronto — and across the league — for years to come. To give the show some context, it was the first Game 7 buzzer-beater in NBA playoff history.

The attempt had no business going in, with Leonard completely off-balance, falling far to his right in the corner as he let the ball go. He said he lofted the shot as high as he could to get it over the outstretched arm of center Joel Embiid, who contested the jumper. When the shot fell through, the usually stoic Leonard was shouting and ecstatic, while Embiid, generally loud and brash, was reduced to tears after playing through various illnesses this series just to come up short.

Recency bias might lead some to say this shot was more impressive than the 37-footer that Damian Lillard knocked in to eliminate the Oklahoma City Thunder. It almost certainly wasn’t.

Leonard’s shot had a high degree of difficulty because of the Embiid contest, but it was still a long 2-pointer from the corner. Second Spectrum, which tracks a shot’s probability,2 gave Leonard’s try a 32.1 percent chance of going down. By contrast, Second Spectrum data suggests that the average player would hit Lillard’s buzzer-beating attempt only 12.6 percent of the time.

But there’s an argument to be made that Leonard’s shot could end up affecting the league more, at least in the near future. For one, reports say that Sixers coach Brett Brown’s job could potentially be on the line now as a result of the series loss. That, on the surface, seems utterly ridiculous given how close the Sixers were to advancing. Philadelphia’s starters got only 10 regular-season games together and pieced together good net ratings against the Raptors in this latest series. The real problem with the club — which went all-in this season with two huge midseason trades — is its lack of depth.3

But Leonard’s game-winner also has to make a club like the Clippers — a team flush with cap space that is fully expected to pursue Kawhi this summer in free agency — wince. By no means would a single shot kill Los Angeles’s chance of making a pitch to Leonard, but conventional wisdom would suggest that the further the Raptors go in the playoffs, the more likely they’ll be able to persuade Leonard to stay north of the border. (But truthfully, no one knows what will motivate Leonard most. After all, he wanted out of a competitive San Antonio team.)

The next series, the Eastern Conference finals against the Bucks, will present even tougher questions for Leonard and the Raptors because of Milwaukee’s athleticism. MVP favorite Giannis Antetokounmpo might be more equipped to guard Kawhi than anyone in the NBA. But on at least one night — a night that seemed to finally squash the Raptors’ postseasons anxieties for good — Leonard and his team could bask in the glow of a historic shot that found its way in after four of the friendliest bounces off the rim that you’ll ever see.

Check out our latest NBA predictions.

Footnotes

  1. Which tied a career high for him even before the fourth quarter began.

  2. If taken by the average player based on its distance and how quickly a defender is closing in on the shot.

  3. Particularly at backup center, where Greg Monroe’s presence in the series was simply brutal.

Chris Herring is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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