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Alex Brandon/Associated Press
Videos of Walt Disney World hotel rooms are circulating, and unshaven players have been spotted. That’s right: The bubble is open for business, and the NBA’s return is drawing closer each day.
While the experience of watching (and playing in) games is bound to be vastly different than usual, some aspects will remain unchanged. Take, for instance, the magic of a game-winning shot. Even without fans to share in the immediate moment, the thrill of snatching victory from the jaws of defeat is intoxicating enough to remain one of the most exciting feats in sports, no matter the circumstances.
With this in mind, let’s get in the mood for such potential ecstasy by reliving some of the best game-winners since 1990. We’re talking both regular season and playoffs, and we’re listing them chronologically.
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In the arc of NBA history, the Bad Boy Pistons’ two-year run as champions is a controversial point of connectivity between the Lakers- and Celtics-dominated 1980s and the Michael Jordan-dominated 1990s. Johnson’s series-ending jumper was the final moment of triumph from this brief era, though none of the participants knew it at the time.
In a way, it’s fitting that Johnson, one of the few Pistons not integrally associated with the team’s rough-and-tumble persona, was the player to seal this second title. His skill as a lights-out shooter won the game and not the team’s brute physicality, a distinction that would become symbolic of Detroit’s rapid obsolescence in the years to come.
But in this moment, with titles in consecutive years in the direct rearview and Michael Jordan still just a minor irritant, a dynasty seemed eminently possible.
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After the Phoenix Suns won Games 3 and 5 and played Chicago to a relative standstill through much of Game 6 of the 1993 NBA Finals, it looked like the series might go the distance.
Enter John Paxson.
Though Michael Jordan was self-aggrandizing, he also doggedly pursued team greatness. As such, he understood the value of delegating if such actions would lead to victory. Take the final moments of Game 6 as an example. Jordan passes to Scottie Pippen, who drives and dishes to Horace Grant, who throws the ball back out to Paxson, who drains a jumper with less than four seconds to go.
Though Jordan and the Bulls cycled through countless role players, he usually figured out how to best utilize them. Whether his tactics en route to success were acceptable is debatable, but the results speak for themselves.
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The 1994-95 Phoenix Suns were big favorites over the Rockets in the Western Conference semifinals, and early on, chalk held steady. Phoenix won the first two matchups by 22 and 24 points and eventually built a 3-1 series lead.
However, something funny happened in the desert. Led by Hakeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, Houston’s playoff experience manifested and the team escaped Game 5 with a 103-97 victory. Then, with a home crowd and increasing momentum behind them, the Rockets won Game 6 too.
Game 7 was one for the ages, featuring 46 points from Suns guard Kevin Johnson and 29 points apiece from Olajuwon and Drexler. This one went down to the wire, where Robert Horry threw a cross-court pass to Elie, who buried a corner three and blew a kiss to the Suns bench while running back on defense.
Without Elie’s shot, the Rockets likely don’t win back-to-back titles.
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Because they were doomed to face Michael Jordan in both of their NBA Finals appearances together, Karl Malone and John Stockton are widely remembered for failing to cap highly productive careers with championships.
But before this shot, their shared history was even more dire.
Stockton famously made the playoffs in each of his 19 NBA seasons, yet before 1997 (his 14th go-round), the team had never even ridden a well-timed hot streak to the Finals, losing prematurely over and over and over again. So, with this history in mind, it momentarily didn’t matter that the 1996-97 Bulls were 69-13 and had lost just two games through the first three rounds of the playoffs.
The shot legitimized over a decade of struggle for the Jazz franchise and certified Malone and Stockton as all-time greats.
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If Michael Jordan, the competitor to end all competitors, decides to cede a title-winning shot to you purely of his own volition, then you must be a special player.
Steve Kerr, while a supporting character in the tapestry that was the Jordan Show, was integral to the Bulls’ latter three titles. A three-point marksman, Kerr was far ahead of his time, and his efficiency splits from long distance remain among the best in league history. Plus, Kerr was a valued teammate, one who could both stand up to Jordan when needed and poke fun at their relationship in front of hundreds of thousands of people.
Kerr’s unique blend of competitiveness and joy made him an invaluable part of numerous championship contenders throughout his playing career and undoubtedly helped him become a highly successful coach.
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Did Reggie Miller push off Michael Jordan before sinking this shot? Absolutely. Was it egregious enough that he should be disqualified from consideration here? Certainly not.
In what felt like a revelation, Jordan stated in The Last Dance that the Miller-era Pacers were his least favorite Eastern Conference opponent post-Bad Boy Pistons. And while Miller was not the best player Jordan conquered in his continued romps through the East, Indiana was one of three teams to take His Airness to a Game 7, so his respect for the club is understandable.
This particular moment stands out, though. Miller’s jumper tied the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals at two games apiece, and with all the behind-the-scenes drama in Chicago we now know intimately, a Pacers upset was possible. Though it was not to be in this season, they would make the 2000 Finals and push the Los Angeles Lakers to six games.
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If Michael Jordan hadn’t played for the Wizards, this shot would be the coolest play in NBA history, definitively surpassing Julius Erving’s behind-the-backboard layup, LeBron James’ block on Andre Iguodala in the 2016 Finals and several other contenders.
Jordan’s push-off on Bryon Russell can be argued forever. Those who call an offensive foul (thanks for reading, Jazz fans!) will not be moved, and the people who either don’t see a push or don’t think it’s a big deal are stubborn too. No matter what, the fact that this is Jordan’s last shot in a Bulls uniform is Hollywood-esque. The only way it could be more cinematic is if it took place in a Game 7, but Jordan never needed one of those in the Finals.
As was mentioned earlier, Jordan’s unending dominance obscured potential titles for John Stockton and Karl Malone. They were both great players in their own right, but even the most ardent Utah fan would admit that Jordan’s success was as awe-inspiring as basketball can be.
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Widely considered one of the most competitive (and controversial) postseason series ever, the 2002 Western Conference Finals boasted endless plot twists.
Here, we’re in Game 4, the Sacramento Kings lead by two and are close to taking a 3-1 series lead. They play excellent defense, stifling both Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal at the rim. Even Sacramento’s late-game instincts are correct, as Vlade Divac bats the ball away from O’Neal. However, in a sequence designed to haunt Kings fans, the ball is picked up by legendary clutch performer Robert Horry, who promptly burnishes his reputation by drilling a three as time expires.
Sacramento natives, cover your ears. If Horry isn’t at the perfect place at the right time, the Kings would have likely made the Finals, simultaneously crushing the Los Angeles Lakers’ dreams of three-peating and giving themselves a shot at their first title in franchise history.
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Talk about an unexpected turn of events.
With 0.9 seconds left in Game 5 of the 2004 Western Conference semifinals, Tim Duncan hit a running fallaway jumper to put the Spurs up by one. On the verge of an elimination game against the defending champions, the Lakers needed a desperation heave, and a heave they got.
You can blame the Spurs for not defending Fisher well enough, but at the same time, he was an unexpected choice to take this particular shot. In Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Karl Malone and Gary Payton, Fisher was surrounded by four first-ballot Hall of Famers.
Though this moment is still a pain point for Spurs fans, it’s a champagne problem in context. San Antonio lost this series but went on to win titles in 2005, ’07 and ’14.
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After Shaquille O’Neal’s departure, Kobe Bryant was in the wilderness. He feuded with teammates and mostly seemed unhappy. But occasionally, we saw how great a Kobe-led contender could be.
Take this Suns series. Phoenix presumably overlooked a team that started Kwame Brown, Smush Parker and Luke Walton, an attitude which Kobe exploited en route to a 2-1 series lead. The Suns were more locked in during Game 4, but Los Angeles hung tough, pushing the game to overtime and trailing by one with six seconds left. Kobe then corralled a jump ball, got to the right elbow and buried a jumper as time expired.
The Lakers’ talent deficiency soon became obvious, as Phoenix recovered to win the series in seven. But the Mamba had shown that he could achieve greatness without Shaq, and titles in 2009 and 2010 would support Kobe in that regard.
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After capturing the 2006 title, Dwyane Wade’s status as a Miami Heat legend was solidified. He could have never recaptured the magic of that season and would still be loved forever in the 305.
The fact that he remained a vicious competitor, even in low-stakes matchups, made him a star worth investing in.
Take this game. It’s a mid-March affair, at the point of the season when some teams start resting up for the playoffs, between two middling squads. However, by sheer force of will, Wade made this a barn burner, dropping 48 points and 12 assists and capping this career night with a steal and off-balance game-winner. He then ran around the court, jumped on the scorer’s table and pointed at the hardwood, claiming Miami for himself.
It instantly became an iconic moment, and Wade would go on to reference it throughout his career.
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LeBron James taking on Dwight Howard in 2009 was appointment television. The now-Lakers teammates were the premier young super-athletes of their day, and the prospect of a full series between the unstoppable force and immovable object was thrilling.
The matchup met expectations. After a one-point Magic victory in Game 1, LeBron prevented the Cavaliers from falling into a 2-0 hole with a buzzer-beating three. The King got open by absolutely dusting Hedo Turkoglu, yet another testament to his boundless speed and athleticism.
Orlando got the last laugh in this series, beating Cleveland in six games. But as we’ll explore, this was the first in a long history of postseason game-winners from LeBron, and his overjoyed reaction here tells a story all its own.
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Considering Metta Sandiford-Artest was known as a dynamite defensive stopper, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that he made two of the most clutch shots of the 21st century in the 2010 postseason.
Sandiford-Artest’s unexpected three in the waning minutes of Game 7 of the 2010 Finals was a thrilling bucket, but strictly speaking, it’s not a game-winner. This desperate buzzer-beating loft in Game 5 of the Western Conference Finals, on the other hand, was a momentum-shifter. The Lakers and Suns split the first four games and looked as evenly matched as two teams could be.
With this in mind, it could be argued that Sandiford-Artest’s bailing out of Kobe Bryant, who air-balled a jumper over two Phoenix defenders to begin this possession, directly led to the Mamba’s fifth and final title, solidifying his reputation as a top-10 player in NBA history.
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After Jeremy Lin tore his meniscus and missed the final portion of the 2011-12 season, the Knicks felt less fun. Thanks in large part to Lin’s heroics, New York was a playoff team, but he couldn’t reap the rewards. However, lost in Linsanity was the fact that the Knicks still had Carmelo Anthony.
The vaunted Chicago Bulls rolled into Gotham on this Easter Sunday, and with the postseason mere days away, Melo treated this matchup as a tuneup, hanging 43 points on Chicago’s fearsome defense, nailing a game-tying three to force overtime and subsequently winning the day with a three over All-NBA defender Luol Deng.
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Rewind to spring 2014. Despite being the reigning Rookie of the Year and an All-Star, Damian Lillard was not yet the face of the Trail Blazers, let alone a universally liked superstar point guard.
Then came this first-round series.
Where most players become less efficient in the playoffs, Lillard was even more efficient, averaging 25.5 points, 6.7 assists, and 6.3 rebounds per game while making a blistering 48.9 percent of his threes over these six matchups. This star-making performance was capped by a series-winning shot, and though it was a wonderful moment, it was a mere cherry on top for the Blazers.
When the team’s other four starters departed in free agency the following summer, it was a blow, but it wasn’t fatal. Lillard carried the Blazers to playoff appearances in the next four seasons.
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No game has better encapsulated both the brilliance and frustration of Chris Paul than this one.
The Point God played one of the best games of his career in this now-underrated Game 7, recording 27 points and six assists while shooting 9-of-13 from the field. At the same time, however, Paul’s excellent performance felt unsustainable, as he left the game multiple times with a hamstring strain, foreshadowing one of the worst-timed injuries in NBA history in the process.
As is the case with so many of the shots on this list, though, Paul was able to rise above the pain to deliver victory, banking in a ridiculously tough layup directly over Tim Duncan to seal the Clippers’ surprise elimination of the defending champs. They’d go on to blow a 3-1 lead over the Rockets in the following round, but Paul’s magical series-winning shot remains a high point for the franchise.
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After a fourth straight injury-shortened regular season, Derrick Rose got healthy for the 2015 playoffs and quickly put Chicago on the verge of a series lead over LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. After years of waiting, would the hometown kid finally fulfill his promise?
At least for one game, Bulls fans got their wish. Rose hung with the King every step of the way in Game 3, recording 30 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. With three seconds left and the game tied at 96, Rose collected the inbounds pass, sped to his right and launched an off-balance three. Despite such a bad attempt, Lady Luck intervened and the shot banked in, giving the Bulls that coveted 2-1 series lead.
As we’ll soon see, Chicago’s advantage over Cleveland wouldn’t last. But this moment, fleeting as it was, provided a glimmer of hope for a fanbase unjustly robbed of a generational talent.
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The Wizards weren’t expected to beat the 60-win Atlanta Hawks in the 2015 Eastern Conference Semifinals, but things quickly went south. During a Game 1 victory, John Wall broke his hand, leading Atlanta to even the series with a 16-point victory in Game 2. Without Wall, Washington had a convenient excuse to roll over, but 37-year old Paul Pierce wouldn’t have it.
With just 13 points and seven rebounds in Game 3, Pierce wasn’t exactly the Wizards’ star. But with the game on the line, Bradley Beal ceded the floor to The Truth, who threw up a prayer with two Hawks draped all over him. Luckily for Pierce, the shot banked in, and the Wizards took a 2-1 series lead. When asked afterwards if he “called bank,” Pierce responded with three simple words: “I called game.”
Atlanta won the series in six, but Pierce’s shot and quote are still remembered fondly by Wizards fans.
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After Derrick Rose’s aforementioned banked-in three gave Chicago a 2-1 series lead and home-court advantage, the Cavaliers entered Game 4 on a dangerous precipice. Would LeBron’s homecoming be a short-lived disaster, or would he deliver a basketball masterclass a la 2012’s Game 6 against the Celtics?
We soon found out that a 3-1 deficit would be no obstacle to LeBron in the right circumstances, but he didn’t have to prove it here. The King put up a near-triple double, scoring 25 points, grabbing 14 rebounds and recording eight assists, and he capped this performance with a game-winning three that he went out of his way to take credit for.
A shorthanded Cleveland would go on to lose to the Warriors in the 2015 Finals, but if the team had lost in the semifinals, then LeBron’s second stint in Northeast Ohio may not have been as fruitful as it became.
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If you happened to miss Stephen Curry’s total obliteration of the NBA throughout the 2015-16 season, watch this game and you’ll get the gist.
This clash of the titans lived up to its billing. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook combined for 63 points, 19 rebounds and 18 assists for the 41-17 Thunder, while Klay Thompson scored 32 points and Draymond Green accomplished the rare double-double with rebounds and assists for the 52-5 Warriors. But through it all, Curry was the best of the five.
Where other players saw a hoop, the Baby-Faced Assassin saw an ocean, drilling a record-tying 12 three-pointers. As if the first 11 threes weren’t impressive enough, however, the final one was earth-shattering. He buried a 38-footer with 0.6 seconds remaining to give Golden State its 53rd win.
Curry would lead Golden State to two more titles in subsequent seasons, but this remains the best game of his career.
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What else is there to say about The Shot?
No, it’s not a buzzer-beater. In fact, there was 53 seconds left in the game. But it’s tough to think of a more important clutch shot from this century.
Once Stephen Curry, the defensive weak link of Golden State’s Death Lineup, switched onto Kyrie, it was game on. In a one-on-one situation against a player of similar stature, Irving is virtually unstoppable, and he knows it. He took five seconds to size up Curry and make mental notes of the other eight players on the court, rose up and fired.
Kyrie’s reputation has trended downward at nearly every turn since this moment, and for mostly valid reasons. But this shot guarantees him fond remembrance in Cleveland after helping to bring a title to the city and is a reminder that he can deliver at the highest levels of the sport.
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In early 2017, Giannis Antetokounmpo hadn’t quite become a superstar yet. He was weeks away from becoming a first-time All-Star, and months away from winning the league’s Most Improved Player award. With three years of hindsight, this game-winner was a sign of things to come.
Making a buzzer-beater is not an inherently star-making act, especially against the Knicks. But the way Giannis muscles his way to the free-throw line and instinctively creates space here is very similar to moves he performs frequently nowadays.
The 2020 version of Giannis is smarter and stronger, to the point that if presented with this scenario again, he’d now probably spin baseline, absorb contact from the defender and win the game with free throws, but the point remains.
Somehow, Giannis is still just 25 years old. If he’s made all this progress since 2017, what will we be saying about his 2020 highlights in three years?
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Thanks to injuries and a recent stretch of off-court issues, Dion Waiters has never fully realized his potential. But for two months of the 2016-17 season, we saw what the mercurial 2-guard could do.
Though he’s still just 28, this stretch might have been Waiters’ peak. From January 13 through March 17, he averaged 18.2 points and 4.8 assists per game while shooting 45.9 percent overall and 44.1 percent from three. This run was highlighted by an exciting win over the Warriors in the midst of their first season with Kevin Durant, with Waiters dropping 33 points, six threes and a game-winning jumper over future All-Defensive second-teamer Klay Thompson.
Despite what he might have believed, Waiters was never an All-Star-caliber player. But the best possible version of his game would have added some welcome flavor to the league.
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From the moment Kevin Durant’s article on The Players’ Tribune went live, it was assumed that Russell Westbrook would strike down upon the NBA with great vengeance.
As it turns out, that’s exactly what happened.
The Brodie recorded the most triple-doubles in a single season while becoming the first player since Oscar Robertson to also average a triple-double. This particular game-winner capped off his record-breaking 42nd triple-double, and what a buzzer-beater it was. Westbrook, an infamously bad shooter, launched a desperation heave from 35 feet, and because everything came up Russ in 2016-17, the shot caught net.
Individually, Westbrook’s historic production paid off. He won the Most Valuable Player award and made the All-NBA first team. But he never achieved much team success as the face of the Thunder, failing to win a playoff series without Durant.
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It feels like forever ago that John Wall was a perennial All-Star.
At his best, the point guard was an unstoppable force in transition and boasted elite passing vision. With such a lethal combination of skills, it behooved opponents to focus on stopping Wall on the court and not provoke him with trash talk.
However, before a win-or-go-home game, the Boston Celtics got cocky, donning black garb with the intent of “burying” Wall and his teammates. To add insult to injury, this was a direct response to Washington’s similar act directed at Boston before a January matchup. The five-time All-Star surely took note of all this, responding with 26 points and a go-ahead three.
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We didn’t need any more evidence of LeBron’s ability to lead subpar teams to postseason success. But the fact that he was still able to shepherd a lacking supporting cast to the Finals at age 33 is a testament to his all-time greatness.
Despite LeBron averaging a near-triple double, Cleveland had its hands full with the Indiana Pacers in this first-round series. But with a 3-2 lead in reach, the Pacers accidentally gave the Cavaliers possession with three seconds left and chose to single-team LeBron. Those are highly favorable circumstances for the King, and predictably, he sank a three as time ran out.
Though the Cavaliers are in the midst of a rebuild as a direct result of LeBron’s skipping town, the fact that his last postseason run with them featured arguably the best basketball of his career makes it easier for Cleveland fans to make peace with his second departure.
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After years of toiling in obscurity, the Toronto Raptors became a playoff contender in the mid-2010s, starting a seven-year streak of postseason appearances. But no matter what, they couldn’t defeat LeBron James in the playoffs. It didn’t matter what team he was on, how good the Raptors had been that season or what stylistic changes they had made: LeBron just had a psychological hold over the city of Toronto, to the point where it was colloquially renamed “LeBronto.”
This game-winner was the most damning example of LeBron’s dominance over the Raptors. Despite a far worse supporting cast and a comfortable two-game lead in the Eastern Conference Semifinals, LeBron outsmarted and outmuscled Toronto just to show that he could.
With the 2019 title under their belt, Raptors fans might feel less antagonistic toward this dreadful period. But in the moment, it truly seemed like an endless cycle of despair for the North.
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Though he remained productive until retiring at the age of 37, Dwyane Wade’s post-Heatles years were largely unremarkable on the court. But once he announced the 2018-19 season would be his last, Wade was given every opportunity to create lasting memories by coach Erik Spoelstra and the Heat family, and in this instance, he rose to the occasion.
Between this preposterous shot and the aforementioned Waiters jumper, it seems the Warriors just have bad luck in Miami. But this shot (if that’s what we’re calling it) is even more serendipitous. While Waiters’ game-winner was at least borne out of a set play, Wade literally just threw up a double-clutched prayer here.
The fact that it went in and gave Heat fans one last authentically exciting memory with the greatest player in franchise history is as good a case for the basketball gods existing as any.
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As sour as it was when Paul George called Damian Lillard’s 37-foot series-ender a “bad shot,” he wasn’t wrong. Such is Lillard’s postseason magic.
After the series-winner against the Rockets in 2014, Lillard garnered a reputation as a clutch playoff performer. And though those positive feelings were undercut by his no-show against the Pelicans in a 2018 four-game sweep, Dame’s year-over-year regular-season improvement and gradual accrual of accolades continued to support this impression.
Most remaining doubts were silenced by his performance in this series against the Thunder, with this high-arcing three over George’s outstretched arms becoming a symbol for Lillard’s transformation into a true superstar.
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After LeBron’s buzzer-beater and the Cavaliers’ subsequent sweep of the Raptors in 2018, the fanbase and team were in a desperate spot, one that led Toronto to trade franchise icon DeMar DeRozan to the Spurs for disgruntled forward Kawhi Leonard. Despite rumblings of his unhappiness, the former Finals MVP led the Raptors to a Game 7 against the Philadelphia 76ers.
Buoyed by a call for the ages from Kevin Harlan, this four-bouncer almost single-handedly lifted the psychological weight of past postseason failures. From then on, Toronto played with house money, an attitude that resulted in both a surprising Eastern Conference Finals victory over the Milwaukee Bucks and the franchise’s first championship, a six-game triumph against the Warriors.
Cite Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson’s injuries as reasons for the Raptors’ title or don’t, but it’s undeniable that Leonard’s dramatic series-winner was a huge boon to the team’s postseason future.
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