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TORONTO, Ont. — I will confess that I jumped up out of my seat.
The way Kawhi Leonard’s shot hit the front iron, and then bounced around for what seemed like ages, in the world’s most tortuous game of Plinko, all of it built toward a staggering finish where normal human function stops and instinct takes over. I leapt up, because apparently that’s what I do when I am utterly shocked.
A clean shot still would have been incredible, still would have sent the Scotiabank Arena into utter bedlam, still would have left Leonard screaming as his teammates swarmed him. It still would have been historic, the first Game 7 buzzer-beater in NBA history.
But it was the anticipation that made it so remarkable. Those seconds of uncertainty, with 48 minutes of basketball in the books and only gravity left to sort out the result. How much was riding on which way the ball fell? It felt like everything.
Leonard was only on the Toronto Raptors because of the way the ball bounced in this same round of the playoffs last season, where a series of chip shots and layups rolled off the home rim in the dying seconds of Game 1 against Cleveland, giving the Cavaliers life and resigning the Raptors to their fate as the team doomed to ever-new ways of crushing playoff heartbreak. How much more would that narrative had been solidified if any of those bounces on the rim were just a tiny bit different? Had the Raptors gone on to lose Game 7, with success having been breathtakingly close, what would we be looking at this morning?
It would be a team with three straight second-round exits, the last after blowing a 3-2 series lead.
How much more would that narrative had been solidified if any of those bounces on the rim were just a tiny bit different?
It would be a team that imported the best player in their history, at considerable risk, watched him be everything and more than they could have imagined, and lost anyway because the rest of the team could not provide the little bit of help that was needed. It would have been Leonard riding into battle on his horse, and the rest of the Raptors forgetting their swords.
It would be a team with enormous looming questions, and the very real possibility that the only sustained period of success for the franchise in its 24 seasons was over, with free agents to leave and veterans to be sold off for whatever they could fetch.
But the ball fell the right way, eventually, thanks to just the right combination of physics and fate, to nudge it past the outstretched hands of the playoff demons that had bedevilled the Raptors so many times before. And now, they move on to the Eastern Conference Finals, with much of their story still to write.
It could all end up being a brief respite from the disappointment.
The Milwaukee Bucks have sailed through the playoffs, crushing an undermanned Detroit Pistons team and then beating Boston in four straight after the Celtics punched them right in the kisser to open the second round. They have terrifying world-beater Giannis Antetokounmpo creating match-up problems in the paint, and, in a development that is relevant to Toronto’s interests, they had major contributions from other Bucks — Khris Middleton, George Hill, Pat Connaughton — to help during the periods when Antetokounmpo was not scoring at will.
It’s that kind of secondary scoring, or rather, the absence of it, that made the Sixers series such a slog for the Raptors, where Philadelphia repeatedly threw multiple defenders at Leonard, creating open shots that his teammates failed to convert at a hair-pulling rate. If the Raptors are going to have any shot at knocking off Milwuakee to make their first-ever NBA Finals, it will have to be the non-Kawhi members of the team who step up and make themselves known.
And that brings us back to the other thing that gravity wrought on Sunday night: the Raptors are now over the hump. It’s a subjective measure, obviously, but over the whole of this season, as Leonard was load-managed and Kyle Lowry was injured and Marc Gasol was acquired, it always felt like the team needed to get to the conference finals for some measure of validation. LeBron was out west, and Leonard had come east, and if all they were going to do was get punted before the third round again, then maybe the whole operation needed to be cleaned out with bleach. Losing a series to the Sixers in which the Raptors had been given a huge helping hand by Joel Embiid’s iffy immune system would have almost as ignominious as those Cavs-led sweeps. It certainly looked, at times, like the Raptors were aware of that tension, of what a loss would mean.
But now, though, they have avoided disaster. They made the final four, and they are in a series that they will not be expected to win. They got beyond the failures of the previous two seasons, and for the first time they beat a 50-win team in the playoffs, even if Leonard did have to drag them across the finish line to do it.
The Raptors are playing with house money now. Does that mean they will be less tentative? Less scared? Less likely to wait for Kawhi, and science, to bail them out?
The answers will start to come on Wednesday night.
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