Considering how closely the Raptors and Sixers battled throughout their semifinal-round series, it was fittingly settled on a last-second shot in its last game by its most active player yesterday. Indeed, by the time Kawhi Leonard let go of his twisting corner fadeaway over the outstretched arms of Joel Embiid just before the final buzzer sounded, he had already played a whopping 278 minutes through seven grueling matches. He looked tired for the duration of the contest, reflecting his extremely high mid-30s usage rate, and his final stab at the rim was short, just like many of his 38 other attempts. That said, it was straight and, more importantly, soft, managing to draw front iron and bounce around before going in, spectacularly securing for the hosts a seat in the conference finals.
As far as dramatics go, Leonard’s clincher could not have been more nerve-racking. The ball certainly stayed in the rim far longer than it appeared to have a right to, and it could just as easily have bounced out to send the set-to to overtime. Nonetheless, it would be a disservice to the way the Raptors competed in Game Seven to argue that a lucky break was all it took for them to win. The Sixers came ready to play, and they needed every bit of resolve to keep the challengers at bay. It’s why they prevailed despite shooting much worse than their opponents; they had 16 offensive rebounds and came up with a stout defensive effort that likewise produced 10 steals and induced 15 turnovers.
A glance at the box score would seem to indicate the Raptors’ tendency to rely on Leonard too much for points. It’s a legitimate observation. They run complex offensive sets, but, once stifled, are often content to just dump the ball to him in isolation. And, yesterday, it’s to his credit that he delivered in the crunch despite his shooting travails and notwithstanding the increased attention given him by the Sixers. That he sank six of nine shots in the payoff period was no coincidence. That his teammates gladly did the dirty work to claim possession and allow him to operate more freely was likewise no coincidence.
Moving ahead, the Raptors will need to stay the course if they are to have a chance against the powerhouse Bucks. They don’t have the luxury of depth, but for as long as they keep plodding on and sacrificing their bodies for the greater good, they‘ll remain competitive. In this regard, the likes of Kyle Lowry and Marc Gasol set perfect examples on the importance of putting collective interests above personal gain. The two posted numbers against the Sixers that were pedestrian at best, but proved indispensable to the cause all the same; both were active, especially against Embiid, in the dying minutes yesterday, setting the stage for the favorable denouement.
Once the outcome of Game Seven was clear, Leonard could not help but let out a sustained shout of success. In the middle of the scrum that enveloped him after his series winner, he was a picture of pronounced confidence. The contrast to the workmanlike demeanor he had hitherto cultivated was stark. Prospectively, it is also crucial to the Raptors’ sustained success. Leadership is earned; he has earned it. Leadership is owned; he is owning it.
Anthony L. Cuaycong has been writing Courtside since BusinessWorld introduced a Sports section in 1994. He is the Senior Vice-President and General Manager of Basic Energy Corp.