It’s a replay NBA fans — especially those in Canada — have probably seen a million times. Yet, every time you watch it, it gets more improbable.
One year ago, on May 12, 2019, Kawhi Leonard lit up Scotiabank Arena in Toronto with a dramatic buzzer-beater to send the Raptors to the Eastern Conference finals.
And weeks later, after beating the Milwaukee Bucks, the Raptors defeated the Golden State Warriors in six games to claim their first-ever NBA title.
It was an iconic shot that will live long in the memory of Canadians who were watching that night.
Toronto entered the series against the Philadelphia 76ers after cruising past the Orlando Magic in the first round. Philly had also made quick work of the Brooklyn Nets, setting up a matchup between two of the East’s biggest contenders in the conference semifinals. The 76ers had made some aggressive moves during the season to push for a championship, adding Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris to a young core that already featured Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons.
What came next was a series reminiscent of the epic 2001 battle between the same two teams. This time it was Leonard and Butler battling it out instead of Vince Carter and Allen Iverson, and, rather than falling at the final hurdle, this time Toronto would be victorious.
After winning Game 1, the Raptors lost the next two to fall behind 2-1 in the series. They managed to steal a close Game 4 behind 39 points from Leonard to tie the series once again before the two teams split Games 5 and 6.
In the decisive Game 7, neither team shot the ball well. It was gritty, it was physical and it was ugly, but Toronto still carried a 67-64 lead heading into the final quarter. That lead would change hands four times in the final 12 minutes with the Raptors clinging to a one-point advantage with seconds left on the clock.
After Leonard split two free throws, Jimmy Butler converted a fast-break layup at the other end to tie things up at 90 points apiece. Raptors’ head coach Nick Nurse called timeout.
The next 4.2 seconds made history.
Marc Gasol proceeded to inbound the ball to Leonard just inside half-court. The 2014 NBA champion then put his head down and tried to dribble around Ben Simmons, but Joel Embiid came across to double team him.
What happened next felt like an eternity.
Leonard ran into the corner with two defenders in his face, but with the seconds ticking off he was forced to heave up a long two-point shot from near the baseline.
The ball took a high bounce off the front of the rim and just kept bouncing.
Three times, four times — seemingly touching every square millimeter of the basket.
Leonard sank into a squatting position as the entire arena — and all of Canada — held its collective breath.
“I didn’t think it was going in,” Leonard’s teammate Serge Ibaka told TSN. “I was under the basket trying to go for the offensive rebound. The ball was bouncing and one time I was so close to going [for it]. Thank God I didn’t because it could have been goaltending. That would’ve been bad.
“I would’ve retired. If that had happened I would have retired”
Then, finally, somehow, the ball fell through the net.
Scotiabank Arena exploded. The Raptors were moving on to the Eastern Conference finals.
“I’m really glad the basket went in because we were too tired to go to overtime,” Ibaka said. “I don’t think we would have really had a chance in overtime. I could see on Kawhi’s face he was so tired, his lips were dry, and everybody was so tired. Going into overtime would have been a different story.”
“It was almost indescribable, and I think that’s kind of how we were on the broadcast,” TNT announcer Kevin Harlan also told TSN. “It was almost like a movie and in the movie you have all these parts that lead up to the conclusion, and that’s how that game was. It was not masterfully played, it was not a game where there was glittering statistics, it was just kind of a grind-it-out, nose-to-nose, very close game. And that kind of ending probably epitomized just how difficult a series it was for both of those teams. It took the bounces on the rim, a miraculous shot, almost an impossible shot to win it.”
Of course, the Raptors’ journey was far from over.
After falling behind 2-0 in the series against Milwaukee, they won the next four straight to book their ticket to the NBA Finals. In the championship round, they faced a Golden State Warriors team going for a third consecutive title, but they managed to dispatch Stephen Curry and Co. in six games.
In the end, the 2018-19 season ended with the Raptors lifting their first-ever Larry O’Brien trophy.
Leonard may have departed for the Clippers that summer, but he’ll always be responsible for one of the greatest sports moments in Toronto’s history: the improbable shot that brought a city — and a nation — to its feet.