Tonight, with Joel Embiid and company in Toronto, there will be a Philadelphia-sized elephant presiding over events at Scotiabank Arena. In the final game of the Eastern Conference Semi-finals last season, Kawhi Leonard’s Game 7 buzzer-beater humbled the super confident 76ers and had American sports media pundits scrambling for a narrative. The most common conclusion in some corners? The 76ers were only four bounces away from an NBA title, and the Toronto Raptors are the luckiest SOBs in all of team sports.
But did luck alone deliver the Raptors their Game 7 win or were they destined for it? To put it another way: Did the 76ers just go the way of all heartbreak victims who are initially too stubborn to accept their fate? After all, it was the Sixers who were headed toward their third loss in four games, including a 36-point shellacking in Game 5, it’s clear that they, themselves, were lucky to be playing in a Game 7, tied up, with 4.2 seconds to go. In fact, if Kawhi doesn’t miss his last free throw and Marc Gasol doesn’t inexplicably tip the rebound out to Tobias Harris who dishes to a streaking Jimmy Butler just in the nick of time for him to score, the series would have been over. Which team got lucky in that sequence?
Yet, if you listened at the time to sports media pundits such as ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith or TNT’s Shaquille O’Neal, you would have thought the Raptors were dead and on the verge of losing to a superior team when suddenly lightning struck, and the hand of God tipped Kawhi’s shot into the bottom of the net. But this is untrue. And facts are more stubborn than cocky basketball players and sports pundits.
Some broader perspective is useful here. At the time of Kawhi’s shot, the Raptors weren’t losing the game, and the 76ers were never quite the superior team. By every meaningful metric, Toronto was better. Not only did they boast a better regular season record, a higher seeding, and home court advantage, they also had better offensive and defensive ratings, a higher field goal percentage, more steals per game, more blocks, and were more proficient at the free throw line. Philadelphia’s only meaningful advantage was averaging about two and a half more rebounds per game than the Raptors. Big deal.
Okay, yeah, so the Raptors weren’t losing, but the 76ers were going to win the overtime and ultimately the championship, right? Wrong. Joel Embiid’s tears would have merely come five minutes later. Because not only had Philadelphia gone 1-3 in road overtime games during the 2018-19 season (the sole win being against the lowly Charlotte Hornets), the Raptors were perfect on the season in home overtime games, including a win over the back-to-back defending champion Warriors in which Kevin Durant scored 51 points. In other words, Philadelphia was going to lose the overtime period and thus the series. Kawhi’s shot merely ended the shenanigans earlier than the stubborn 76ers were hoping.
Ok, fine, but c’mon, the Shot bounced four times on the rim and dropped in. That never happens. It had to be luck, right? Wrong again. While lightning never strikes twice in the same place, Kawhi Leonard’s jump shots apparently do. Weeks earlier, in the final seconds of a tied game against the Portland Trail Blazers, the exact same thing happened. Kawhi drove right toward the baseline and elevated for a fade-away jumper that bounced four times on the rim and dropped in for the two-point win. Coincidence? Luck? No. Great players have many tricks up their sleeves. And the modern NBA player is known to practice making difficult shots at weird angles and using the rim and backboard to their advantage.
This is all to say that the Raptors were not lucky to beat the 76ers. They had the better team, a better coach, and a master of clutch shooting. Sure, Game 7 didn’t have to end the way it did. But when it comes to stubborn, sometimes showboating basketball teams who enjoy basking in the over-hyped sunshine of their own existence, sometimes you have to tear their hearts out to make them go away.
For another look back at The Shot, check out our brief retrospective here — and our full game preview of tonight’s Raptors-Sixers rematch over here.