The Shot that changed a nation
An oral history of Kawhi Leonard's epic Game 7 buzzer-beater, as told by those who saw it up close
If Toronto had one do-or-die moment in the 2019 playoffs, it was Game 7 against the big, loud, confident Philadelphia 76ers. For the Raptors faithful, the outcome of either result was easy to foresee. Lose, and Kawhi Leonard likely ditches Toronto after a single season, forcing the team to rebuild after another disappointing run. Win and move on, contend for a title and, just maybe, the “Klaw” stays a little longer. The Raptors came out strong, but the Sixers outscored them in the second and third quarters. In the fourth, it stayed close. Leonard, emotionless up until that point, was starting to take over. Neither team let the other slip away. All of Toronto, it seemed, had stopped to watch.
The fourth quarter
Mark Blinch, the Canadian photographer working with the NBA who captured The Shot from above: I think the arena was generally pretty nervous for most of the game. There was a lot riding on it. Leonard becomes a free agent after the end of the season, meaning he can choose to sign with another team. A lot of fans hope he might stay in Toronto if he can win with the Raptors.
Frank Gunn, a Canadian Press photographer sitting behind the baseline near the Raptors’ bench: There was chatter. There was nothing specific in those moments. Kyle Lowry’s wife was right behind me and she was stoic throughout the entire game. Silent.
Jim Treliving, president of Boston Pizza, sitting courtside near the Raptors’ bench: The game was back and forth. Both teams were very evenly paced. We came on strong in the fourth quarter. I think Philly was surprised by how strong our defence was—it was so tight. You felt like you didn’t want to go to overtime.
Quinn Lee, Raptors ball girl on the 76ers’ baseline It was so quick. You have to be in the moment, or you’ll miss so much. It was a whirlwind.
Sandi Treliving, sitting courtside with her husband, Jim: Nobody wanted it to go to overtime. I think we were all thinking, “Please, c’mon, we can do this!” I felt confident that we were in control of the action. But it was that kind of game. When you’re that close to the game, it’s exhausting, because you’re fully invested in what’s happening.
Danny Green, Raptors guard: Offensively, we didn’t have it going. We did well defensively; we rebounded and boxed out. But we couldn’t get the pace we wanted, or the open looks.
Brett Brown, 76ers coach: The two things we’ll look back on all summer is [offensive rebounds] . . . and there were some dry possessions at the end. There was probably two for sure, maybe three, where you needed to get a shot. I give Toronto credit. They were switching a lot. They were able to keep us in front of them.
‘This looks like overtime’
Gunn: Having covered 30-plus years of this sort of thing, the expectation was overtime. There’s a remarkable ability to stay tied in basketball. You get one overtime, there’s often a second one and sometimes even a third.
Kenny Smith, former NBA player and TV analyst: Philadelphia never got [it going with their superstar] Ben Simmons. In the first half, they had the pace but missed shots. And no one on the Raptors would take their first available shot other than [Kawhi Leonard].
Shaquille O’Neal, NBA legend: That’s what superstars do. They put the ball in the right place. It’s not going to work in seven games, but it will work in one game.
Kyle Lowry, Raptors guard: We only won one quarter [the first quarter]. There were a lot of things we could have done a lot better.
Charles Barkley, NBA legend: The thing that bothered me about Toronto is that their guys were afraid—they were turning down wide-open shots.
Fred VanVleet, Raptors guard: It was a back-and-forth game. Not the prettiest of basketball. But that’s just the way this series has been.
Gunn: The last minute or two of the quarter was extraordinary. Kawhi made a steal. It wasn’t just the final shot; he shut them down.
Lee: Kawhi hasn’t had a great free-throw record since those “MVP” chants started going on. But during that free throw with 11 seconds left, it was silent. He misses, and you hear the collective sigh throughout the entire arena. Jimmy [Butler] went on a fast break, and ties the game. Timeout. The last 4.2 seconds felt so drawn out. Everyone was so stressed. The last few seconds ended up being like 15 minutes of constant timeouts. Everyone wanted to have it over with, but in the right way.
Kawhi Leonard, Raptors forward: I was very mad [after missing the free throw that led to Butler tying the game at 90-90]. I tried to race down and get a rebound. I probably should have sprinted back to give some help on that layup Jimmy made. But after that I was just like, “Whatever play [coach] drew up, I’m about to get to my spot and shoot it, and shoot it with confidence.”
VanVleet: It wasn’t scripted. It wasn’t pretty. I’m sure Kawhi was pissed he missed the free throw. We gave up a quick layup [with 4.2 seconds left].
Nick Nurse, Raptors coach: We planned to run Kyle [Lowry] as the first option, and then Kawhi loops and gets it at the top. It’s his call from there what to do. We’ve seen that one a few times this year. Again, I’m not sure he’s made that exact shot, but he’s probably taken it four or five times. I think he missed a couple of those along the way this season, that exact same play and similar shot.
Leonard: A couple possessions before that, I had the same shot from three and it came up short. I just knew I had to put it up even higher than that.
Susan Harris, CEO of Executive Coaching Associates, who’s sat courtside next to the Raptors’ bench since 1995: You could see that Kawhi was very intent and determined. He had that look on his face.
Leonard: We ran a similar play during the Magic series and ended up just catching and shooting the ball. It was probably about three seconds. I just remember that moment, and knew that I had time to at least pump-fake, or take a dribble. We drew up the play again [in this game] and there was four seconds left and, remembering that moment, I knew I had some time to try and get some space, rather than just catch and shoot the ball.
Blinch: I chose to use a 300mm lens, which is a large zoom lens normally, but since I was positioned at the very top of the arena, it still presented a wider view. I wanted to make sure I had some room for the atmosphere in the arena, should the Raptors win the game.
Gunn: I’m the photographer crouched in the pictures from up high. I’m about five or six feet away from Kawhi.
Blinch: Normally I have a floor position, but the NBA had sent in a photographer from Philadelphia, so I had to find another spot. I am thankful I was positioned from a high vantage point, because you can really see a story on everyone’s face.
Herbie Kuhn, Raptors PA announcer: Leonard came down the middle of the court, guarded originally by Simmons. Then he drove right and the Sixers transitioned from Simmons over to [Joel] Embiid. At that point, from my vantage point courtside, my line of vision is obscured. I can see there are still four other Raptors in my vantage point. So I know Kawhi still has the ball at least. At this point, I don’t have the luxury of time to look up at the big screen for a better view because we’re down to about two seconds. I kept my eye in the area. You’ve got the fans. You’ve got the seats where Drake is sitting. You’ve got coaches and players standing there. And then I see the ball in the air.
Gunn: I expected Kawhi to stop and step up at the start of the arc. Instead, he just kept driving deep into the right corner toward me, then he launched himself basically backwards. It was such a steep fadeaway that it looked like he was doing a back flip—Embiid flying up with him. He lets the ball go.
Frank Ivankovic, senior director of national accounts with Molson Coors, sitting courtside near the Raptors’ bench: I’ve been having this feud with Embiid the entire series. And we actually got into a bit of an altercation. When he went to block [Leonard’s] shot, he actually came into our seats. I didn’t even see the ball go into the air. I was more engaging with him, yelling at him. So I was actually angry.
Lee: I’m folding towels as Kawhi is dribbling up to the corner. I have a thing where I feel like if I’m watching the game and not doing my job, then nothing good will happen. It’s kind of superstitious. As Kawhi is coming toward me, so is Joel [Embiid]. Joel jumped, and he kind of fell on me, and I moved out of the way. I still wanted to see where the shot went. Kawhi is squatting and I think to myself: “He missed it.” Why would he be down? I looked up and the ball was bouncing on the rim.
JJ Redick, 76ers guard: It looked short. There’s a lot of emotion that happens as the ball starts rolling around the rim.
Harris: Everybody in the arena was just waiting with bated breath, trying not to be too optimistic when Kawhi took that last shot. He crouched down and waited. You could hear a pin drop.
Lowry: My view was standing in the other corner. He shot it high enough where he gave himself a chance.
Kuhn: I’m a preacher and I’m an announcer. It’s not often I’m short of words. I talk for a living. I saw that ball in the air and my initial reaction was, “Oh man, I think it’s short.” Then it hit the front side of the rim, and it bounced. Then it bounced a second time. The whole arena went very quiet. It was almost as if the proverbial time stood still. It was a suspended moment where you have Kawhi crouched in the corner and Embiid looking up. You’ve got [Raptors bench player] Jordan Loyd with his arms stretched out. Things were silent. I saw it bounce the second time, then it bounced over the far side. I had the microphone in my right hand and my finger on the mic button with my left hand—I wanted to burst: “It’s in!” But I couldn’t. I had to wait for it to fall.
Green: I think at first a lot of us were like, “Ah, it doesn’t look too good.” Then it got one bounce and it was like, “Okay.” And then the second bounce, it was, “Oh s--t, we might have a chance here.” It probably bounced four or five times. It seemed like it was 30 seconds, but probably took all of point-eight seconds.
Gunn: I’m watching Kawhi the whole time. Time does slow down in these kinds of situations, but this was extraordinary. I was waiting but nobody’s reacting. Something’s happening, but I can’t figure out what it is—is the ball wedged? Did it get stuck? I’m the only guy in the building who didn’t see it.
Jim Treliving (who is oddly stone-faced in one of the now-famous photos of the moment): The buzzer was going off as the ball was passing right in front of me. In my mind, I thought, “Oh it’s over. It’s not going to count.” Everything was in slow motion. My son sent me a message after from Calgary, saying, “Dad, were you alive in that game?” In the second photo frame, a second later, I have both hands in the air.
Jordan Loyd, Raptors guard: I was standing with everyone else originally. I didn’t know [Leonard] squatted, too. I just was, like, in the moment. I wasn’t focused on anything but the ball and the rim.
Kuhn: Then it bounced a third time and the fourth time, and then bounced back into the hoop. Everybody erupted. I started shouting, “Oh my goodness! Kawhi Leonard! Oh my goodness! Kawhi Leonard!” That’s all I yelled for about 30 seconds. After I finished that, I shut the mic off. I sat back and closed my eyes for a few moments and just soaked it up.
Gunn: It was quiet. Then deafening. It was like somebody pressed the pause button, and then pressed play again.
Harris: It was almost disbelief. We were all hugging the staff at Scotiabank Arena.
Lee: Everyone jumps toward Kawhi. I was right beside him. I touched him on the arm because I felt like it would be such a missed opportunity [if I didn’t]. I was like, “Oh my god, is this a real-life god?” Everyone was going insane. I was screaming. Everyone was screaming. I felt like I was a part of that moment.
Sandi Treliving: I was taking a video. As soon as the game ended, my son called me and said, “Mom, send me the video.” I sent it to him, and he called me back saying, “You blew it! First of all, if you’re taking video, you should have your phone sideways. Secondly, you didn’t follow the ball all the way into the net.” I told him I went to the party—there was a celebration happening in front of me.
Joel Embiid, 76ers centre, who was consoled by Marc Gasol after the game: Losing a game that way, last shot, after a hard-fought game—in which I feel like we had a lot of chances—a lot of things go through your mind. It sucks. I can’t explain it. It just sucks.
Jimmy Butler, 76ers guard: He hit a tough one. You tip your hat to that—he’s an incredible player. You know it, we all know it.
Geordy Young, manager of national accounts with Molson Coors, sitting courtside near the Raptors’ bench: Any other game, any other shot, any other situation, it’s just another game. But the fact that [Leonard] made that shot, the way he made it, the drama, the suspense, everything was just perfect.
Nurse: It looked like it was going in the whole time to me.
‘A shot that will change Canada’
Blinch: This is the moment the franchise changed into a legitimate championship contender. I am glad to have a great still image to represent that moment, and glad that it has been received so well.
Gunn: I only have a couple frames of Kawhi smiling all season. It was like a cork came out of a bottle—he just lost it.
Lee: This is my seventh and last season. It’s definitely the best ending to a ball girl’s career.
Jim Treliving: It was like a Bobby Orr shot, where you see him flying through the air. This was the same kind of thing. You’re going to see it for a long, long time. That shot and that game probably changed a lot of people in Canada.
Serge Ibaka, Raptors centre: Oh man. That was incredible. I don’t know what to say. I used to play with guys like Russell [Westbrook] and KD [Kevin Durant], so I saw a lot of crazy shots. But this one? Oof! In the moment, too? Whew. This one was unbelievable.
Pascal Siakam, Raptors forward: That was crazy, man. That was by far the best moment in the NBA. Just watching that—the shot, the difficulty—it was tough. It’s definitely up there with the greatest moments, for sure.
Leonard: I’m a guy that acts like I’ve been there before. So probably the last time you’ve seen me scream was when we won [the championship with the San Antonio Spurs]. So whenever it’s like a moment where I haven’t really experienced, I’ll probably try to give some emotion, show some emotion, and let it just come out. This was one of those nights. I’ve never been in that situation before—like you said, it’s the first time somebody hit a [buzzer-beating] game winner in a Game 7, so I just showed emotion. It was great. It was a great feeling.
Lowry: It was a good, emotional moment for everybody to be there and just kind of a sigh of relief and enjoyment—phew! It was great.
VanVleet: Kawhi has probably shot that shot a million times as a kid. Those are the type of shots you dream of growing up.
Leonard: It was a blessing to get to that point, make that shot and feel that moment. It’s something that I can look back on.