The NBA is roughly 500 of the most elite basketball players in the world. In the NBA playoffs, the cream does usually rise to the top… but the split between the top and bottom can be a very, very thin line. Regardless of what happened, that line can be a single call, play, or basket in a single game. The NBA has a system, though. In a seven-game series, very rarely does that impact the final buzzer. Frankly, the “best of seven” philosophy helps solve some of the randomnesses. Rarely does the entire system come down to one play? Insert: Kawhi Leonard.
On May 12th, 2019, one of the most impactful shots was made in the history of NBA basketball. Barely.
The ripple effect of Kawhi Leonard’s buzzer-beating shot over the Philadelphia 76ers resonates to this day. Franchises have been built up and torn down over what happened just three years ago. Legacies continue, both positively and negatively, because of what happened on May 12th, 2019.
So What Happened?
Game Seven. NBA Eastern Conference Semi-Finals. Toronto is loud. There are 4.2 seconds as Marc Gasol sets up to inbound the ball in a game that is tied, 90-90. The Raptors, who had lost at this point in the previous two seasons, and shortly thereafter the year before that, run a criss-cross pattern of screens to get new addition Kawhi Leonard the ball at the top of the key. Leonard was pushed to the midcourt logo, where he caught the ball and immediately sprinted to the corner in front of Philadelphia’s bench.
As the clock got under a second, and Leonard stepped just inside the corner’s three-point line, he rose up and fired. James Ennis III, Serge Ibaka, Tobias Harris, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, and Gasol stared on as the ball bounced. The horn sounded louder than the crowd as the ball loudly bounced half a dozen times around the rim before falling through. The roars of Jurrasic Park in Toronto were too loud to notice the horn’s buzzer end. Ibaka, Gasol, and Kyle Lowry’s hands shot up. Fred VanVleet, Pascal Siakam, and the rest of the bench mobbed Leonard. Leonard, usually stoic, was shouting to Zeus on Mt. Olympus.
The Toronto Raptors were going to the Eastern Conference Finals, a place they’d only been once before as a franchise and never been past. All after a single, fadeaway, long two-pointer over the top of two defenders bounced six times and through the hoop.
What Happened After?
Famously, amidst the celebration, Joel Embiid walked off the floor crying. The Sixers were in shambles. Jimmy Butler left for Miami, where he would make the NBA Finals the following season (in the bubble). Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid spent a season playing on alternate nights, just 41 times together, and by the end of the 2021 season, the partnership ended in an ugly divorce full of name calling and public blaming for losses. The Sixers are still making a push, but their nearly a decade-long process didn’t (and still hasn’t) made it past the second round.
The Raptors? They famously went on to win the NBA title. Leonard left for the LA Clippers as the league’s hero. No harm no foul- in his lone season in Toronto they made it to and won a championship. Leonard now had two Finals MVPs on two separate franchises. Lowry’s efforts have given him the “winner” monicker. Pascal Siakam was the next young winner and star. Head Coach Nick Nurse was dubbed a coaching genius for running a box-and-one against the injured Warriors. Masai Ujiri’s gamble, trading the franchise’s beloved DeMarr DeRozan for a one-year rental of Kawhi Leonard, paid off. They won an NBA Championship, thus it was worth it.
And it couldn’t have happened without that shot. It couldn’t have happened without every single one of those seconds or without every single one of those six bounces.
What Never Happened?
Had that shot not gone in? The game heads to overtime. In the 2018-19 season, Philadelphia was 10-10 in overtime games; to that point the Raptors were 4-3. Adding in that they were at home, logically the Toronto Raptors would have gone on to win.
But the game was back and forth. Butler, who has proven to be a closer in the time since was poised. Leonard, on an injured quad, had already taken 39 shots. How much more could he muster?
What Could Have Happened if That Never Happened?
In playing devil’s advocate, what happens if the 76ers win in overtime? Do they also beat Milwaukee in the Eastern Conference Finals? Do they also luck into a depleted Warriors? Does The Process become successful?
If The Process becomes successful, it’s hard to imagine that Jimmy Butler walks away after winning like Kawhi did to Toronto. Butler reportedly left because Philly couldn’t win. So if they had? Clearly, he would have no reason to leave. If anything, he is likely the Finals MVP!
Extrapolating that story… Butler and Miami make the 2020 NBA Finals in the bubble. Does a Butler-led Sixers do the same? Embiid and Simmons faced numerous injuries, but do they push themselves back if Butler is there? Embiid is currently playing with torn ligaments and a fractured face.. he’d likely try, no?
If not, and Philly leaves early in 2020 with just Jimmy, there’s no way that Miami would without Butler… so who does?
Bucks Big Losers?
Milwaukee lost to Toronto and Miami in 2019 and 2020 respectively before winning their own title in 2021. No one could forget Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Finals performance… but in 2019? 2020? He was the NBA’s MVP both years.
Had Leonard’s shot missed, and Philly won in OT, he’s got a very different match-up. Instead of a rotation of OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Serge Ibaka, and Marc Gasol… he’s a young Joel Embiid? Inexperienced Ben Simmons? What’s to say Milwaukee doesn’t beat Philly that year as an easier match up? And if they do, do they match up with the injured Warriors in a way that also could win the 2019 NBA Title?
Ok, let’s say they don’t. But Philly does. If Philly wins, and Butler stays, who beats Milwaukee in the 2020 Eastern Conference Playoffs? Miami wouldn’t have Butler and Milwaukee? They lost multiple single-digit playoff games to Miami with Butler. Does Milwaukee edge Miami in 2020? How do they match up with the Bubble Lakers?
The most obvious answer to who lost the random, bouncing, once in a million years shot by Kawhi Leonard is Philadelphia because they lost the game. But what about Milwaukee? There’s a not-so-distant timeline here where Giannis Antetokounmpo plays for championships before his dominant 2021 run.
Giannis is already building a case for “one of the greatest ever.” But what if Leonard missed, the Sixers won, and the better match-up meant the Bucks won the 2019 title? Or 2020’s? 27-year-old Giannis Antetokounmpo could be playing for his third (or fourth!) title in four seasons. He wouldn’t be climbing his way into the Greatest of All Time conversation. He would be the entire conversation. The ripple effect of Kawhi Leonard’s shot looms large.
So What All Could Have Happened After THAT?
At some point, the ripples fade into just unstill water. Trying to figure out what could have happened if Kawhi Leonard missed us a never-ending rabbit hole that leads to multiple universes, not unlike the golf hole Bugs Bunny lives in in the movie Space Jam.
That’s part of the fun, but it’s also what’s so arbitrary. Leonard’s shot hit more parts of the rim than parts of the net but fell through. Because we live in that reality, Kawhi Leonard is one of the greatest champions (when healthy) of a generation. Lowry brought a winners mindset to Miami last off-season. And Joel Embiid? He got dubbed things like “cry-baby” and “loser.”
But if Leonard’s singular shot misses, he still would be the tenacious defender he was before it went in. He’s still the multiple-level scoring threat that will also lock down your best perimeter player in the last 6 minutes of a game. Lowry would still be a great leader that a franchise like Mimi needs in their locker room, even if he had no championship ring to lock up during practice.
And the alternate reality? Where young Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler, and the Sixers win a title over a batter Dubs? Joel Embiid, and Jimmy Butler, are still actually that good. Much like Giannis is proving to be that good, even after the ripples are done rippling.
Every moment of the NBA playoffs is enjoyable. The randomness of single plays, single calls, and single efforts are part of the fun. But don’t let single, random, bouncing outcomes detract from just how incredible this generation of basketball players are. You’ve got seven-footers with jump shots and handles that would embarrass Sam Jones and Bob Cousy. You’ve got six-foot-three guards controlling the painted area. What we’re watching is special, even if the outcome stems from the way a ball so happens to bounce that day.