Kawhi Leonard’s jump shot from the corner 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.
READ MORE: Raptors confident ahead of do-or-die Game 7
Leonard had 15 of his 41 points in the fourth quarter, and corralled the ball with four seconds left before the launching the winning basket.
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.
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Joel Embiid led his team with 21 points as all five Philadelphia starters finished in double digits. JJ Redick added 17 points and Jimmy Butler had 16.
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.
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The Raptors shot 21 per cent in the first quarter, and the No. 1 three-point shooting team in the league since the Gasol trade in February, might as well have been masquerading as the worst. They missed their first eight three-point attempts before Ibaka finally connected a minute into the second.
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.
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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 an inbound from Gasol 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.
Both coaches talked pre-game about the magnitude of a Game 7.
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“I think you would tend to think that in a long coaching career this is really, really, really big, biggest moment ever, but I think back to when I was getting ready to coach the Manchester Giants versus the Birmingham Bullets back in 2000, it meant a lot to me in the moment,” Toronto’s Nick Nurse said. “I can’t imagine it meaning any more. I’ve had a lot of those times in my career and it feels similar.”
Sixers coach Brett Brown said his staff of 14 had spent the previous night dining at swish Yorkville restaurant Sotto Sotto.
“I will be on a mission personally to help our players get through this,” Brown said. “To have a demeanour of solid. That’s my role in a game like today. To help our guys, to tell them the truth when things aren’t going the way that we want, and to steady the ship. Keep the boys in the boat.”
WATCH: Nurse says Raptors made shots which helped fuel defence
The Raptors shot just 5-for-24 in the first quarter, including 0-for-8 from behind the arc, yet still managed to build a seven-point lead when Green poked the ball away from Embiid and finish with a dunk eight minutes into the game. Leonard led the way with eight points in the quarter, and Toronto took an 18-13 lead into the second.
A three-pointer by Harris capped a 14-2 Philly run in the second that gave the visitors a four-point lead. But the Raptors fired back with an 11-3 run punctuated by a Lowry three-point play that saw Toronto head into the locker-room at halftime up 44-40.
The Raptors had played in five previous Game 7s, most recently in 2016 when Lowry scored 35 points to help Toronto beat Miami to move on to the conference finals.
The Raptors lost 88-87 to Philadelphia in the 2001 conference semifinals when a Vince Carter jump shot at the buzzer bounced off the rim. The Sixers went on to play Milwaukee in the conference final.
WATCH: Toronto Raptors win series with Kawhi Leonard’s historic shot