Game 5 of the 2019 NBA Finals was truly one of the strangest NBA Finals games ever to be played. The fallout from it, both on and off the court, will be felt for a long time, and in the immediate aftermath, most of the storylines were about Kevin Durant’s injury, how the Warriors handled it, what it meant for his free agency and the NBA as a whole, the Toronto crowds... and maybe a little bit about Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson saving Golden State’s season, and whether or not they could pull off a 3-1 series comeback.
Lost in all of the hoopla, unfortunately, was an incredible sequence from Kawhi Leonard that came this close to making history (and making my heart stop).
With about six minutes to play in the game, the Raptors trailed the Warriors by four points following a Draymond Green three-pointer. On the ensuing Raptors possession, Leonard was stripped of the ball, and the Warriors went the other way, with Klay Thompson rising up for a backbreaking three-pointer...
That caught nothing but air. Leonard came out of the ensuing scramble with the ball, going full speed the other way; he just baaaarely held his pivot foot as he made a hard stop in the front court, passing off to Norman Powell — who just baaaarely made it into the front court. Everyone on Golden State assumed at least one of those near-violations would be called, and they stopped, but no call was made and Powell cruised in for a dunk.
And thus started the run that nearly changed everything.
After a Golden State timeout, Leonard corralled an Andre Igoudala miss and took the ball the other way; he pulled up in Igoudala’s grill and nailed a three, giving the Raptors their first lead since the 3:30 mark of the first quarter. With the crowd going wild, Leonard chased Steph Curry around a screen, and got a good contest as Curry launched a triple. Marc Gasol rebounded the miss, got the ball to Kyle Lowry, who dished to Leonard with a step on Igoudala. A leaning six-footer gave the Raptors a three-point lead.
Draymond Green scored the other way, but Leonard came back and drilled another three, this time following a switched pick-and-roll that saw DeMarcus Cousins on him. After another Igoudala miss, Leonard unleashed a crossover-into-a-pullup move on Klay Thompson, drained the 12-footer, and gave the Raptors their largest lead, 103-97. Curry missed a three the other way, the Raptors had the ball, up six, with 3:05 to go, and the championship was seemingly within reach.
It was one of the most sensational 2:30 seconds of basketball l’ve ever seen. 10 straight points, following an assist on the previous bucket, with a rebound and Leonard’s trademark great D. People compared it to Michael Jordan, the way Kawhi took over and imposed his will, and I can’t argue with that comparison in this case.
With each possession, I could feel my heart just racing, faster and faster; I’m pretty certain I held my breath for most of it. After Leonard’s last shot I remember putting my hand on my heart, just because it felt like it was going to pound itself right out of my chest. It really, truly felt like we were seeing something special, on an individual level from Leonard, and on the team level, as it looked like this run was going to catapult the Raptors to their first-ever NBA title. I was sitting (or standing, as was the case here) in section 319, right in the middle of row 12; my eyes were wide, my jaw likely hanging open and I distinctly remember feeling like I was all alone, just in my own world, like there was no one else around me. I don’t remember any sound, what anyone else was saying or yelling, just this feeling of awestruck amazement at what I was certain I had just witnessed: Basketball history. The best player in the world played for my team, and he just put that team on his back and he was carrying them to the promised land.
Unfortunately, we know what happened next; Steph and Klay rallied the Warriors back and Draymond Green blocked a Kyle Lowry game-winner by millimetres. Leonard’s run didn’t make history, and now, regardless of the outcome of the series, that sensational sequence will be nothing more than a footnote.
But, whether the Raptors win or lose the series, I’m gonna try and remember how I felt in those 2.5 minutes of game time / seven minutes or so of real-time. I witnessed something I’d never seen before and never will again, and it affected me both physically and emotionally in the moment, in that confusing way that sports does, where you wonder why you care so much, because it seems silly, but you can’t help it anyway, because you just do. Because even though in the grand scheme it doesn’t matter, in that moment, it’s the only thing that matters. And it’s a pretty awesome feeling, one I hope I never forget.