The Toronto Raptors are headed to the Eastern Conference Finals in stunning fashion.
With the game tied and four seconds remaining, Kawhi Leonard dribbled to the corner and unleashed a shot over multiple defenders. It hung on the rim for seemingly forever until it dropped in to give the Raptors a 92-90 victory over the Philadelphia 76ers in Game 7 of their second-round series.
Leonard finished with 41 points on 39 shots, while Serge Ibaka (17 points and eight boards), Pascal Siakam (11 points and 11 rebounds) and Kyle Lowry (10 points, six assists, six rebounds and two steals) provided support.
All five Philadelphia starters scored in double figures, including Joel Embiid (21 points, 11 rebounds and three blocks), but nobody could match Leonard's heroics.
Raptors Need Secondary Stars to Step Up
It is a testament to Leonard's individual brilliance that he stuffed the stat sheet with 41 points, eight rebounds, three assists and three steals even though Jimmy Butler and Ben Simmons made his life incredibly difficult throughout the game.
They swarmed him from the start, forcing him into contested looks and creating situations in which secondary defenders could run at him right before he unleashed one of his head-turning 39 field-goal attempts.
Toronto traded for Leonard with moments like Sunday's buzzer-beater in mind, but it will need far more than him forcing the issue against the Milwaukee Bucks. Lowry was second on the team with a mere 13 field-goal attempts, and there were far too many possessions during which the rest of the team stood around hoping Leonard would bail everyone out.
That is exactly what he did, but doing so against a Bucks squad that was No. 1 in the league in defensive rating, per NBA.com, will be far more challenging.
Milwaukee is more primed than any team in the league to deal with Leonard. It can put Giannis Antetokounmpo on him during crunch time, which limits the need for help because of the athleticism and wingspan the potential MVP brings to the table. He can cut off driving lanes with his lateral speed, challenge shots at the rim as a shot-blocker and contest perimeter jumpers.
That is a problem for a Raptors supporting cast that was inconsistent at best for much of the Philadelphia series.
Nobody except Leonard, Siakam and Lowry scored more than five points in a Game 2 loss. What's more, Siakam and Leonard were the only ones with more than 13 in either the Game 3 or Game 6 losses.
Everything revolved around Leonard's ability to generate offense. He either drove the lane and finished through contact, pulled up from mid-range or three when given too much space or kicked out when defenders collapsed. Those looks won't be there in the next round if Antetokounmpo is minimizing the need for help.
There were plenty of reasons for optimism during Sunday's game, though, even if Leonard was doing the heavy lifting.
Ibaka and Marc Gasol both hit critical three-pointers early in the fourth quarter to keep momentum while Leonard was resting, and Lowry challenged the narrative about his inability to come through in the playoffs by making many of the winning plays in a pressure-packed Game 7.
The point guard battled for multiple offensive rebounds and found Leonard for a three shortly after Philadelphia's 16-0 run in the second half. He was also the first to a number of loose balls and even drew an important charge on Embiid. Moreover, he had just two turnovers despite serving as one of the primary ball-handlers.
He did it all while battling a thumb injury and looked nothing like the player who scored in single digits during two of the series' first three games and has a career player efficiency rating of 15.5 in the playoffs compared to 18.4 in the regular season, per Basketball Reference.
On paper, the battle between Antetokounmpo and Leonard for supremacy in the Eastern Conference will draw the headlines. They are two of the premier defenders and overall players in the entire league and will be matched up against each other in crunch time.
However, Milwaukee's supporting cast has shown more throughout the playoffs. The Bucks couldn't have steamrolled through the first two rounds in just nine games if they didn't have five players averaging double-figure scoring in the postseason.
George Hill, Eric Bledsoe and Pat Connaughton held their own against Kyrie Irving in the second-round matchup with the Boston Celtics, and Milwaukee will have a healthy Malcolm Brogdon (15.6 points per night on 42.6 percent shooting from three in the regular season) as a secondary scoring option.
The only way Toronto can match the top seed is if the supporting cast turns the moments of brilliance from Sunday's game into sustained effort.
76ers Need to Keep Core Together, Run It Back
The 76ers turned the Process into an all-in effort to reach the NBA Finals when they traded for Butler and Tobias Harris this season and added them to the Embiid and Simmons core.
The end goal of the Process was always to accumulate enough assets and use them to become contenders, and Philadelphia did just that by trading for the former two players and drafting the latter pair. That effort doesn't have to end with a second straight exit in the second round, especially since Embiid is 25 years old and Simmons is 22.
Decisions must be made, though. Butler has a player option for 2019-20, and Harris is an unrestricted free agent. Butler will also be 30 years old next season and has plenty of miles on his legs after previous postseason runs with the Chicago Bulls.
Still, he was Philadelphia's go-to option for much of the Raptors series while making Leonard work for every look. He was the primary defender on the Toronto superstar during the 76ers' 16-0 run in the third quarter as the visitors turned a nine-point deficit into a lead—exactly what the team envisioned when it traded for the four-time All-Defensive selection.
That effort was the reason Philadelphia nearly won this game on the road even though Embiid was an ugly 6-of-18 from the field and Simmons shot a mere five field-goal attempts.
Simmons needed to be more aggressive looking for his shot—a constant theme—but an entire offseason, training camp, preseason and regular season together with the same core group should allow him to further learn his teammates' strengths and weaknesses as the floor general and adjust his game accordingly.
Embiid also dealt with health issues and illness for much of this series, and Philadelphia still lost in heartbreaking fashion at the last possible moment.
The talent is undeniable even in the face of the loss, and the Eastern Conference could look quite different next season if Leonard declines his player option and leaves Toronto. Irving could also leave the Celtics with a player option, which would weaken another contender.
Philadelphia is on the verge of being an NBA Finals team with this core. One different bounce on Leonard's shot, and the story could be completely different.
Bringing back Butler and Harris and giving this group an entire season to develop together before next year's playoffs is the best course of action.
The Raptors will face the Bucks in the Eastern Conference Finals, while the 76ers turn their attention toward the offseason and Butler's decision on his 2019-20 player option.