It wasn’t going in. A basketball, at least in the scheme of sports, is relatively predictable. Not like a baseball, which has seams that, in a pitcher’s hand or when deflecting off some imperfection on the infield dirt, can do some pretty wild stuff; not like a football, which is designed to be aerodynamic but when on the ground will bounce maddeningly at random; certainly not like a puck, which when on edge can get weird. A basketball is straightforward. This doesn’t make it any easier for a player to make it do what he wants it to do, but from decades of playing or watching the sport, you generally know where the ball is going. And all that accumulated life evidence was clear: A ball that hits the front of the rim, with that much velocity, bounces out. History and physics overwhelmingly promise it.
“Ah, it doesn’t look too good,” Danny Green remembered thinking from his vantage point on the bench.
So Raptors-Sixers Game 7 was going to head to overtime, and it would have been a fascinating one. The Sixers offense had stalled— they scored five points and just one field goal in the final 5:47 of the game—and Joel Embiid was visibly gassed. Kawhi Leonard had taken 39 shots, the most any player had ever taken in regulation of a Game 7, and for much of the fourth quarter, he was Toronto’s offense. But in the game’s final minute, he had missed a free throw and now looked like he was going to miss a second contested jumper. Overtime would’ve meant redemption for someone, and it would’ve been the second-most dramatic way to wrap up a close game in a close series. The first-most would have been if Leonard’s shot, an attempt at the first Game 7 buzzer-beater in NBA history, would have gone in. But that didn’t look likely.
A typical baseline shot is doomed if it hits the front of the rim because it either clangs back toward the shooter or skips completely over the cylinder. But Leonard’s was not a typical shot. It was a high, arcing shot, and on purpose. “I just knew I had to shoot it high,” Leonard said. “A couple possessions before that, I had the same kind of shot from three and ended up coming short. I just thought I had to put it up even higher than that.” Even more immediate to his thinking, Leonard had seven-foot Joel Embiid in his face. So just to make sure he cleared Embiid’s outstretched arm, a rainbow was required.
And so, the shot had hit the rim at the exact unlikely angle to send it caroming straight upward, and, crucially, to reverse the spin on the ball, giving it the slightest bit of topspin. So now, when it came hurtling down from the height of the very top of the backboard, it struck the front of the rim again but this time bounced forward—just a little bit, but enough for Green to rethink everything.
“The second bounce,” Green remembered, “it was ‘Oh shit, we might have a chance here.’”
The second bounce had carried the ball across the diameter of the hoop, to ricochet off the inside of the far edge of the rim. That was enough to stop its forward momentum, and to deflect the ball, yet again, nearly straight up—the first bounce, replayed in miniature. The outcome was still very much in doubt, but each bounce robbed the ball of some of both its linear and its angular momentum. It was settling.
But my god, it took a while.
The whole thing from the moment the ball left Leonard’s hand to the moment it eventually fell, took more than three seconds; the bouncing alone took 1.9 seconds. So much happened in that time. Leonard ended up squatting in the corner, out of bounds, his tongue between his lips, just watching. Embiid was over him, leaning around to gain a view of the rim.
Serge Ibaka, more out of instinct than anything, was trying to position himself to go up and grab a rebound, but there was just never anything to grab. “I don’t know if you saw the video,” Ibaka said after the game. “I tried to be ready to go for an offensive rebound, but every time the ball keeps bouncing, I keep trying to jump. You know? It was amazing, man.”
The crowd didn’t move. Watch them when you watch the video for the 400th time; a frozen wall of white giveaway shirts. Maybe there was a barely perceptible leaning forward, but there was no body language to indicate pending celebration, or heartbreak. No one knew. Until the next and last...
By now, you knew. The final bounce, again on the inside of the far edge of the rim (from Leonard’s perspective), and slightly toward the backboard. This was basketball physics back on familiar ground. You knew it was going in, but there was not enough time to do anything with this information.
Try something. When you watch the video of the shot for the 401st time, shut your eyes. Just listen to it, from start to finish. It tells the entire story.
You can hear the bounces, and after the first bounce, there is an exhalation of disappointment. From most angles in the building, it was impossible to see that the ball had deflected straight up. Most fans assumed it was bouncing out at some angle—a reasonable assumption, because that’s what happens 99 out of a hundred.
You can hear the buzzer stop. It stops before the ball comes down for a second bounce. It has taken that long already, and there is still so much left to happen.
You can hear the crowd realize, gradually and then all at once, what is going on. The awwwws turn to ohhhhhhs. Twenty thousand people inadvertently vocalizing what the brain has time to process but not to translate into words.
You can hear Kevin Harlan dissolve into that selfsame inarticulate jubilation: OHHHH! That purest expression of excitement—what could words have conveyed any better?—and the comically long pause that preceded it, make it a call that’ll live forever.
And so, swish, eventually. A dagger, delayed.