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CLAW OF THE LAND

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A sublime series reminded fans in Canada just how big a star they have—and hope not to lose

IN THEIR 73-year history, the NBA playoffs had never seen a buzzer-beater to end a Game 7, until Sunday in Toronto, when Kawhi Leonard caught a sideline inbounds pass near the top of the key with 4.2 seconds left. The Raptors' forward spun quickly to his right, then maneuvered along the three-point line toward the corner, chased by 76ers center Joel Embiid. Running out of time and space, Leonard hoisted a high baseline fadeaway. As the ball bounced on the side of the rim, Toronto forward Pascal Siakam worried that teammate Serge Ibaka might—for the second time in the game—get whistled for offensive goaltending on a putback.

Raptors shooting guard Danny Green was on the bench as the ball went up over Embiid's outstretched arms. Green thought it was short. "Then it got one bounce," he says. "And it was like, 'O.K.' Then the second bounce it was, 'Oh, s---, we might have a chance here.' It probably bounced like four or five times. [It was four.] It seemed like it was 30 seconds, even though it was probably only .8 seconds. Then once it went in, everybody was just ridiculously excited. The whole building. I think there are still people yelling out there."

The greatest moment in franchise history gave Leonard his 41st point and Toronto a 92--90 victory that sent them to the Eastern Conference finals to face the Bucks. Mobbed by teammates the second the ball finally trickled through the hoop, the normally impassive Leonard let loose, shouting to be heard above the delirious crowd. "That's something I've never experienced before," he said of his outburst. "It was a blessing to be able to get to that point, and make that shot, and feel that moment."

Over the summer there were whispers around the NBA that the 27-year-old Leonard, after missing nearly an entire season with a mysterious right quadriceps injury in San Antonio, might not be the same player. That talk ceased almost as soon as the season began. Acquired from the Spurs in a July trade, Leonard looked phenomenal in leading the Raptors to a 6--0 start. In the middle of that stretch, an executive from another NBA team texted SI, "Looks like we all f----- up not trading for Kawhi."

Now, any concerns have given way to fascination over how great Leonard is. "We lean on him a lot—sometimes a little too much," center Marc Gasol said after Game 7. "He can create a shot out of nothing. He's a mismatch all around."

Through the playoffs' first two rounds Leonard averaged 31.8 points, second to only Kevin Durant, while playing defense as disruptive as anyone's in the NBA. His 243 points against Philadelphia were the most in one series since Michael Jordan's 246 in the 1993 Finals. While KD, Steph Curry and James Harden were hitting tough shots, Kawhi has simply used his strength to create space, squared his shoulders and buried jumper after jumper. With an obscene true-shooting percentage of 65.0 in the playoffs, he has been as clinical on the perimeter as Tim Duncan once was in the post.

Green has been a teammate for Leonard's entire career. "Nobody saw this coming," he said after Game 7. "They saw a guy with big hands, wide shoulders, a defensive threat, could be a monster. They did not see the explosiveness on the offensive end. He's been an MVP candidate the last couple of years he's been on the floor."

What Leonard has delivered is wilder than most Raptors fans could have imagined. His Game 7 heroics came 18 years after Vince Carter missed his own Game 7 buzzer-beater in the second round. The parallels between the two shots—one heartbreaking, the other breathtaking—are eerie: both were from the corner, both bounced around the rim, both came against the Sixers and both were for the chance to advance and face Milwaukee.

The ultimate lesson of this season in Toronto is that there's a difference between an All-Star and a superstar, a player who's so good that he gives his team a chance against anyone, and so reliable that he can embolden the entire roster. The Raptors trailed Philadelphia in the second, third and fourth quarters of Game 7, but each time, they found a way to retake control.

Leonard will be an unrestricted free agent this summer. He has spent the entire year declining interview requests, and he hasn't committed to any long-term plans. What is known: that he's from Riverside, Calif., that he recently bought a house north of San Diego, and that the Lakers and the Clippers will be among the suitors certain to make calls in July. Toronto, though, can offer him roughly $50 million more than any other team.

A team official says that Leonard has grown increasingly comfortable in Toronto, but he remains the NBA's most inscrutable star. "You kind of segment it a little bit in your brain," GM Bobby Webster says. "We all do. You're trying to be intensely focused on the moment and evaluate what's going on game to game. And then you have your moments to think about, 'O.K., where is this team going?' I will say, we've known the situation since we did the deal for Kawhi. It's a reality we've lived with for nine months."

"We'll figure that out when we get there," Green says of the summer. "Right now we're still enjoying the moment and trying to win a championship. We're focused on the here and now. We'll worry about that later."

"We lean on him a lot—sometimes a little too much," Gasol said of Leonard after Game 7. "He can create a shot out of nothing. He's a mismatch all around."