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Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer-beating jumper sends Raptors to the Eastern finals

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard drilled a game-winning jumper to eliminate the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 of a second-round playoff series. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)

In Game 6 of the 2013 NBA Finals, then-San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard missed a free throw with 19 seconds left that set the stage for the biggest shot in Miami Heat history: Ray Allen’s iconic corner three-pointer. That shot forced overtime, led to a Game 7, and ultimately swung the series in Miami’s favor.

Six years later, Leonard, now the face of the Toronto Raptors, again missed a clutch free throw that led to the biggest shot in the franchise’s history. This time, though, it was Leonard who got to enjoy the storybook ending.

The all-star forward buried a buzzer-beating fade-away jumper in Game 7 on Sunday, eliminating the Philadelphia 76ers and lifting the Raptors into the Eastern Conference finals for just the second time. Leonard’s shot, which hit the rim four times before finally falling through, gave him a game-high 41 points and sealed Toronto’s 92-90 home victory.

With 10.8 seconds left and the Raptors clinging to a two-point lead, Leonard missed the second of two free throws and the Sixers claimed the defensive rebound. In the scramble, Philadelphia’s Jimmy Butler broke free in the open court and cruised in for a stunning game-tying lay-up.

After a timeout, Toronto set up on the left sideline with 4.2 seconds left on the clock. Leonard came to the top of the key to receive the inbounds pass and immediately drove right on Ben Simmons. As the clock ticked under two seconds, Joel Embiid jumped out to provide a double team, forcing Leonard deep into the right corner near the baseline.

Leonard, who was acquired from the Spurs in a 2018 trade, released his fall-away shot over Embiid’s outstretched hand with less than a second remaining. The ball drew the front of the rim once, and then twice, before caroming to the back of the rim, where it hit twice more. Finally, after four bounces, it nestled home.

“It looked like it was going in the whole time to me,” Raptors Coach Nick Nurse said. “Obviously, it’s a nice, lucky bounce. But I thought we were very unlucky for a lot of that game, so it came back to us a little bit and balanced out.”

The shot was the first game-winning buzzer-beater in a Game 7 in NBA playoff history. It was also the second series-clinching buzzer-beater of this year’s postseason, joining Damian Lillard’s 37-foot missile in Game 5 that sent the Portland Trail Blazers past the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round.

Leonard has been Toronto’s primary source of offense throughout the playoffs, and he took things to a whole new level on Sunday. He finished 16-39 from the field, 2-9 from deep and 7-8 from the free throw line to get his 41 points, adding eight rebounds and three assists in 43 minutes. His 39 shots marked his personal postseason career-high and a Raptors postseason franchise-record.

“I knew it was Game 7," said Leonard, 27, who will become an unrestricted free agent in July. "I didn’t want to leave any shots in my mind. I wanted to leave it all on the floor. This could have been my last game for the season. I would have had to wait five months to put up another shot in a game. I wasn’t going to worry about makes or misses, just try to will us to a win.”

As Leonard waited to see if he would get the friendly bounce, he squatted down near the baseline in nervous anticipation. Once it went through, the Scotiabank Arena crowd erupted and the normally reserved Leonard screamed while being mobbed by his teammates in front of the Raptors’ bench.

“I’m a guy who acts like I’ve been there before," Leonard said. "Whenever it’s a moment that I haven’t really experienced, I’ll try to show some emotion and let it come out. Tonight was one of those nights. It was a great feeling.”

Philadelphia was left in disbelief. Embiid, who posted 21 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks, shed tears shortly after the buzzer.

“It didn’t surprise me. When it hits at that angle and goes straight up, you feel like there’s a chance it’s going to go in," Philadelphia Coach Brett Brown said of Leonard’s shot. "It’s a tough way to lose. It’s going to be a life memory that, as painful as it feels now, it will help shape [Embiid’s] career and give him greater clarity of what this time of the year represents. It’s hard to be the last man standing.”

After years of watching his team crumble under the postseason pressure, Toronto President Masai Ujiri decided to roll the dice and trade for Leonard last summer, despite his impending free agency. That gamble was validated in the most dramatic way imaginable.

The Raptors now advance to face the Milwaukee Bucks, with Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals set for Wednesday in Milwaukee. Their only previous trip to the conference finals came in 2016, when they were eliminated in six games by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.

“[Leonard] shot it high enough to give himself a chance,” Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said. “It bounced in. It means a lot. It’s another step towards our big goal. It was crazy. It was a good emotional moment for everybody. It was a sigh of relief. It was great.”

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