Kawhi rewrites Canadian basketball history

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard leaned forward and crouched: His shot over Philadelphia 76ers All-Star centre Joel Embiid hit the front of the rim and bounced up. The ball came back down and bounced off the rim again, over to the other side. It hit the rim twice more before it went in. As his teammates swarmed him, Leonard screamed, and so did the nation.

According to an analysis from Second Spectrum that accounts for shot difficulty, length, and defence, Leonard’s attempt had a 32.1 per cent chance of going in if an average player was taking the shot. While Leonard is no average player, Raptors fans still weren’t counting on a shot of that magnitude—a buzzer-beating Game 7 winner. The image of a shot like that one not falling in favour of the Raptors is part of their narrative, which is one of bad luck: When something could bounce the Raptors’ way, it usually doesn’t.

The 2017–18 NBA playoffs, in which Toronto earned home-court advantage throughout, ended in a four-game second-round sweep to the fourth-seed Cleveland Cavaliers. In Game 1 of that series, the Raptors could not convert on several close-range attempts to win the game. In Game 3, LeBron James hit a difficult shot at the buzzer over outstretched rookie forward OG Anunoby to seal the Cleveland victory. These images sear themselves into a fan’s memory, where they remain until replaced by ones like Leonard’s game-winning shot.

Within a single frame of the last 4.2 seconds of the Raptors’ Game 7 win, there are reactions aplenty. Grimaces and tears, smiles and sadness. Toronto-born rapper Drake, noticeably absent from his sideline seat in Scotiabank Arena, commented that he felt he should drop a freestyle just to use the photo of Leonard and the bench waiting for the shot to fall in as album artwork.

5.8 million Canadian viewers tuned in to watch this monumental game, which set records for a basketball game in the country at the time. Throughout the game, Raptors announcers Matt Devlin and Leo Rautins repeatedly drew parallels to another Game 7 against Philadelphia, in 2001. At that game, with the Raptors down one point, Vince Carter missed his attempt to win the series for Toronto at the buzzer.

“2001, it didn’t fall for Vince,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry told Sportsnet’s Eric Smith directly after the May 12 victory. “2019, it fell for Kawhi.”

With the Raptors moving onto the Eastern Conference Finals on such an incredible shot, fans could finally shed their anxieties and fears after years of postseason disappointments. Leonard’s shot rattled in and Toronto had its moment, a moment they could uniquely call their own. This was the first buzzer-beater to win a decisive Game 7. The Raptors now stand alone in the basketball record books.

There would be no more losses at the hands of LeBron James or jump-shots that hit the rim but don’t go in the net. Leonard ended that era and opens a new one for the franchise: A new chapter of optimism has begun.

Leonard’s success brings the Vince Carter story full-circle. Over the years, Carter’s impact on Canadian basketball has become clear. Hamilton filmmaker Sean Menard directed a documentary titled The Carter Effect in 2017, showing how Carter inspired the next generation of young Canadian athletes. Cleveland Cavaliers forward Tristan Thompson and Indiana Pacers guard Cory Joseph, both Toronto natives, told Menard about the value of having a superstar athlete perform at the highest level so close to home. But Carter, for all his athleticism and highlight-reel dunks, missed that big playoff shot. Leonard didn’t.

Six games have passed since Leonard’s shot, and plenty more Leonard plays have helped the Raptors advance to their first-ever NBA Finals. With Game 1 set for May 30, excitement for basketball in and around Toronto is at an all-time high. This moment brought current fans out of their seats, and to tears, and helped make new fans along the way. Toronto has not yet had a player like Kawhi Leonard or a team like these Raptors—and now the city will be screaming with him and his team every chance they get.

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