Star among stars: Kawhi gives Raptors something they've never had
Vaughn Ridley / Getty

TORONTO -- Michael Jordan. He's the only player who had ever decided a winner-take-all NBA playoff game at the buzzer.

That is until Sunday night in Toronto, when Kawhi Leonard's high-arching, baseline jumper in front of the Raptors' bench bobbled off the rim four times before falling through, sending the Raptors to the Eastern Conference finals over the Philadelphia 76ers.

His Airness is also one of only two players in league history who've scored more points in a post-merger playoff series than Leonard did in seven games against the Sixers. The other guy's name is Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

That's the company Leonard has put himself in. That's the storied history the Raptors now find themselves attached to after two-and-a-half decades spent filling footnotes in the annals of NBA folklore.

If it hadn't already become crystal clear over the six-month regular season, or during Leonard's first-round dismantling of the Orlando Magic, it's obvious now. This is why Masai Ujiri traded away loyal franchise icon DeMar DeRozan to acquire a reportedly disgruntled Leonard entering the final year of his contract.

The Raptors had reached a certain standard under head coach Dwane Casey and best friends DeRozan and Kyle Lowry. Five straight playoff trips, three straight 50-win seasons, and three straight years advancing past the opening round. It was an unprecedented run of sustained success for the franchise, but ultimately, the Raptors were bit players in the stories being written by greats such as LeBron James.

Ujiri's Raptors craved more. They yearned for the kind of greatness that's immortalized in gold, or at least by the type of signature moment Leonard delivered on Sunday.

For Leonard, the shot was a fitting end to an unforgettable series. The 2014 Finals MVP averaged 34.7 points, 9.9 rebounds, four assists, and 1.3 steals on 53 percent shooting in the second round. Over the course of those seven games, the Raptors outscored the 76ers by 34 points in Leonard's 278 minutes on the floor. In his 58 minutes on the bench, Toronto was beaten by 15 points.

Along the way, Leonard made plenty of memories for himself and the Raptors. He set a new postseason career high with 45 points in Game 1. He buried a Game 4 dagger in Philly that some were calling the biggest shot in Raptors history up to that point. The significance of that moment for the psyche of Raptors fans - with Leonard separating himself as the star among stars in a marquee playoff series - could not be overstated.

Jesse D. Garrabrant / National Basketball Association / Getty

Toronto supporters had grown accustomed to watching opposing stars rise above their hometown heroes when the stakes were highest. Sixers legend Allen Iverson got the best of Vince Carter in an iconic duel that ended with Carter missing the potential series-winning jumper of his own in 2001. Chris Bosh was no match for Jason Kidd or Dwight Howard in his two trips to the postseason as a Raptor. James, meanwhile, seemingly invented new ways to torment and demoralize the Raptors over the last few years - so much so that Toronto was dubbed "LeBronto" last spring.

So, Leonard's Game 4 dagger, drained while donning Canadian colors - a red and white jersey emblazoned with the word "North" across the chest - was a cathartic experience for fans who used to wonder what having that guy must be like.

Then came Game 7.

Leonard's jumper had seemingly abandoned him, and he entered the fourth quarter shooting 10-of-30 from the field. But he proceeded to score 15 points on 6-of-9 shooting in the final frame, and he ended the series by single-handedly outscoring the Sixers 13-12 over the final 6:11.

"I knew it was Game 7, and I didn't want to leave any shots in my mind," Leonard said of his sky-high usage. "This could've been my last game of the season, and I would've had to wait five months to put another shot up in a game, so I was going to leave it all out on the floor tonight and not worry about makes or misses."

When the game-winner finally fell - every bounce off the rim that preceded it exorcising another Raptors demon of the past - the usually sedate Leonard let out a primal scream so loud you'd swear you could've heard it over the 20,000 roaring Canadians he had just sent into a frenzy.

"I'm a guy that acts like I've been there before, so probably the last time you've seen me scream is when we won (the NBA championship in San Antonio)," Leonard said of his emotional explosion. "Whenever it's a moment that I haven't really experienced, I try to give and show some emotion, and let it just come out."

Jesse D. Garrabrant / National Basketball Association / Getty

These are Leonard's Raptors now, and fans have an all-time moment to remember that by. No free-agent decision, or even the top-seeded Milwaukee Bucks, can take that from them.

James, who now finds himself in the strange position of watching the Raptors and the playoffs from his couch, tweeted about Leonard's shot with a combination of emojis, as did many of the league's biggest stars. The ones who actually played in Sunday's contest tried to find words, though that proved difficult.

"I don't know what to say," Raptors big man Serge Ibaka told reporters from the home locker room almost 90 minutes after the final buzzer. "I used to play with guys like Russell (Westbrook) and (Kevin Durant), and they hit a lot of crazy shots, but this one tonight ..." Ibaka trailed off before letting out a deep sigh. "In the moment, this one was unbelievable."

After being vanquished repeatedly by James in playoffs past, the Raptors and their fans know how the Sixers felt on Sunday night: stunned and resigned to the idea that their team didn't have quite enough to overcome that one guy on the other side.

"He hit a tough one," Jimmy Butler said. "You tip your hat to that. He's an incredible player. We know it. Y'all know it. Ain't too much more you can say about it."

Butler and the Sixers will now head into an offseason of uncertainty. For the Raptors, it's on to Milwaukee and the East finals.

This isn't the furthest the Raptors have ever been, but because of Leonard's greatness, it's the longest the Raptors have ever believed. Toronto lost a six-game conference final to James' Cavs in 2016, but even at 2-2 through four games of that series, it was hard to see the Raptors as anything more than a minor nuisance for the eventual NBA champion.

This time, Leonard's presence makes anything seem possible for Toronto, as Sunday's historic ending reminded us.

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Star among stars: Kawhi gives Raptors something they've never had
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