New York, May 13: Kawhi Leonard scored one of the most dramatic buzzer-beaters in NBA history to cap an incredible performance and lead the Toronto Raptors to a 92-90 win over the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 on Sunday (May 12).
With the score tied at 90, the Raptors inbounded the ball with four seconds left. Leonard, who scored a game-high 41 points, took the ball, dribbled into the corner and nailed the game-winning two-pointer over Joel Embiid.
The ball bounced four times on the rim before dropping through, as Toronto fans erupted.
The Raptors will now face the Bucks in Milwaukee in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference finals on Wednesday.
Here are three takeaways from the Raptors' huge win:
Is there any NBA player more important to his team than Leonard?
Think of the top players in the NBA, from Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant to Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Embiid.
Are any of them more valuable to their team than Leonard is to the Raptors?
While Leonard can keep pace with any of the aforementioned players on the offensive end (he is averaging 31.8 points in the playoffs), he creates so many problems for Raptors' opponents on defense. Twice in the first half, Leonard stole the ball and took it down the court to finish with a dunk.
Leonard stepped up time and time again when Toronto needed him most. Down the stretch, he scored 13 of the Raptors' last 15 points in the final six minutes, including a long jumper that broke an 85-85 tie.
And then he hit the game-winner. Leonard did not have a great shooting performance (16 of 39 from the field) but he came up big when it counted.
No one wants to talk about the obvious after such a thrilling finish, but Leonard, of course, is eligible for free agency in the offseason. As he showed on Sunday, Toronto need him back.
Serge Ibaka played critical role off the bench
As Leonard carried the Raptors during Game 7, everyone watching wondered: Would someone, anyone else, step up for Toronto?
Serge Ibaka answered the call. The 29-year-old center scored 17 points off the bench, and knocked down three of his five three-point attempts.
Ibaka came into the game averaging only 8.3 points in the playoffs. He could not have picked a better time to come alive off the bench. If the Raptors hope to beat the Bucks and advance to the NBA Finals, they will need more contributions from everyone on the roster not named Kawhi. The other four starters hit 12 of 35 shots and scored a combined 30 points against the 76ers. That cannot continue.
The NBA regular season really does matter
How many times during the regular season do we hear fans utter the cliché: "The regular season doesn't matter – our team will be totally ready when the playoffs begin."
But regular-season wins can create a huge advantage in the postseason. The Raptors, who finished second in the Eastern Conference, had the home-court advantage over the 76ers, who finished third. And that advantage showed in Game 7. The Toronto fans in Scotiabank Arena were vocal and enthusiastic most of the game. They went silent when the 76ers sucked the life out of the building with a 16-0 second-half run, but the fans came alive down the stretch.
The 76ers won two of three games against Toronto in Philadelphia, both by healthy margins. Just imagine if Game 7 had been in Philly. Would the outcome have been different? It is not a stretch to think playing at home might have been worth at least three points for Philadelphia.