In every championship campaign, there’s always a singular play we remember as the defining moment of the run. Last year, the moment was Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer beater for the Raptors in Game 7 against the Sixers. In 2018, it was when J.R. Smith — in what could be the costliest mistake in NBA history — ran out the clock while the game was tied in Game 1 of the finals. In 2017, Kevin Durant hit a go-ahead pull up 3-pointer with under a minute remaining to give Golden State a 3-0 series lead. But there are also the missed opportunities before those moments.
Up two with just under a minute left in Game 3 of the 2017 NBA Finals, Kyle Korver caught a pass from LeBron James in the left corner (a spot in which Korver shot nearly 60 percent that season) and missed a slightly contested shot. Durant then grabs the rebound, strolls down court, and nails a contested pull-up three to put Golden State up one, eventually giving them an insurmountable 3-0 series lead.
What if Korver hits that shot to put the Cavaliers up five with under a minute remaining and gives them the win? Does Cleveland still win Game 4 and tie the series at 2-2? Can they win two of the next three? Who knows? When the stakes are that high, one missed shot can change history.
In Toronto’s championship run, Kawhi Leonard’s series winner against the Sixers will be the moment we’ll all remember. But like Korver’s shot in 2017, there are some moments we’ll look back on years later and ask, “What if it went the other way?”. Let’s take a look at three of those shots during the Raptors title charge that swung the pendulum in Toronto’s favour.
Game 4 - Eastern Conference Semi-Finals – PHI leads 2-1
With 1:09 remaining in a pivotal Game 4, Kawhi Leonard used a Marc Gasol screen to get free from Ben Simmons before hitting this dagger three over the long arms of Joel Embiid, the shot clock expiring just as the ball goes through the basket.
It’s important to remember how thoroughly the Sixers outplayed Toronto in the previous game, winning all four quarters on route to a 113-95 victory. With Philadelphia being such a tough building to play in for the last few seasons, this shot helped the Raptors secure home court advantage for the rest of the series. Besides, without this shot we would have never seen the 4-bounce, series winning, buzzer beater.
Game 3 – Eastern Conference Finals – MIL leads 2-0
From the moment of Eric Bledsoe‘s drop-off pass until the ball hit the left side of the rim, I held my breath. I knew if that shot had gone in for the Bucks, the Raptors’ whole run might have ended right then. No team has come back down 0-3, and it wasn’t likely for a team of Milwaukee’s calibre to be the first team to allow it.
Khris Middleton did tie the game moments later but luck was on the Raptors side. The game would go into double overtime with Kawhi Leonard making huge defensive plays to seal the victory. After that, Toronto went on the win the next three games and clinch their first Finals berth in franchise history.
Game 6 – NBA Finals – TOR leads 3-2
For five years, opponents of the Golden State Warriors were waiting for that one explosive run. In what was the biggest game of the season and the last game in Oracle Arena, it just didn’t come. Every Golden State run was ended as quickly as it started as Toronto would not let the gravity of the moment hold them down.
Lowry’s leaning shot over Steph Curry was just one of those shots. Difficult, dribbling with his off-hand, shot-clock running down, with the title on the line. It bounced off the back rim, hung in the air, and went straight through the hoop. It was Lowry’s last basket of the night and his most important. Luck was just on the Raptors’ side — and Toronto would claim it’s first championship as a result.
So those three shots should get us started. What are some of your favourite “smaller” or underappreciated shots (or misses!) from the Raptors’ 2019 playoff run?