Kawhi Leonard’s 15-foot jump shot at the buzzer lifted the Toronto Raptors to a thrilling 92-90 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers — and into the Eastern Conference Finals for just the second time in franchise history.
The Raptors face the Bucks, who dispatched Boston in five games, in the Eastern Conference final, beginning Wednesday in Milwaukee.
Serge Ibaka had 17 points and eight rebounds, while Pascal Siakam finished with 11 points and 11 boards, and Kyle Lowry had 10 points despite playing most of the night with a taped left thumb he sprained early in the second quarter. Marc Gasol grabbed 11 rebounds to go with seven points.
The see-saw series had some wild momentum shifts, with a couple of blowouts on both sides. The Raptors set a franchise record for margin of victory in the post-season with their 125-89 Game 5 rout, but rather than comfortably close the series in six games in Philly, they dropped a 112-101 decision in Thursday’s Game 6 at Wells Fargo Center.
Sunday’s game certainly wasn’t pretty, particularly by post-season standards.
The lead changed hands six times in the first half, but neither team led by double digits. When Gasol scored on a floater at 9:28 in the third quarter, Toronto took its biggest lead of the game — nine points. The Sixers responded with a 16-0 run to go up by seven, but the Raptors replied and Ibaka’s layup with 7.7 seconds left in the third gave Toronto a 67-64 lead with one quarter left.
A Scotiabank Arena crowd, that included former Raptors point guard Jose Calderon, was on its feet for most of the final nailbiting 12 minutes that saw Leonard score five straight points to put Toronto up by five with 4:48 to play.
Toronto’s defence locked down in the final couple of minutes. Leonard broke a tie with a long two-pointer, then Lowry stole the ball off Tobias Harris and Siakam finished with a layup that had the ear-splitting crowd roaring their approval and put Toronto up by four heading into the final minute.
A free throw by Butler and two from Embiid with 12.1 seconds made it a one-point game. Leonard was fouled and missed one of his free throws and then Butler sprinted downcourt for the tying layup with 4.2 seconds to play.
On the final thrilling play, Leonard took the ball from Lowry and shot from just in front of the Raptors bench. He connected. The arena exploded.
The Jumbotron panned to the hundreds of bundled-up, celebrating fans watching the game outside the arena in Maple Leaf Square on a chilly 6 C night.
A loss would’ve been deemed a big disappointment for a squad that team president Masai Ujiri rebuilt specifically with a big but short-term goal in mind — a berth in the NBA Finals — acquiring Leonard and Danny Green for much-loved DeMar DeRozan last summer, and then acquiring Gasol for Jonas Valanciunas at the trade deadline.
Among the questions that hinge on these playoffs is the future of Leonard.