Welcome to "One Play!" Throughout the 2019-20 NBA season, our NBA.com Staff will break down certain possessions from certain games and peel back the curtains to reveal its bigger meaning.
Today, former Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard takes the spotlight.
Context: Last May, Kawhi Leonard hit a shot over Joel Embiid that forever changed the trajectory of Raptors history.
I am, of course, talking about the step back dagger three to ice Game 4 against the Philadelphia 76ers.
While Leonard's buzzer-beater from Game 7 of that series will go down in the history books, the two-time Finals MVP made an equally big shot in Game 4. Up by one point with around a minute remaining in the fourth quarter, Leonard hit a 3-pointer over Joel Embiid to secure a much-needed win for the Raptors in Philadelphia.
Thanks to Leonard, who finished the game with 39 points, 14 rebounds and five assists, the Raptors tied the series at 2-2 and regained homecourt advantage.
The play: Here's Leonard's dagger from Game 4, which our Kyle Irving ranked as the second-best play in the series.
Breakdown: Following a missed shot by Embiid, Serge Ibaka pulls down the defensive rebound and gives the ball up to Kyle Lowry.
The three Raptors on the court with Lowry and Ibaka are Leonard, Danny Green and Marc Gasol. According to NBA.com, that five-man lineup didn't log a single minute together in the regular season. Raptors head coach Nick Nurse went to it in the playoffs mostly as a means to combat Philadelphia's size after the 76ers dominated the boards in both Game 2 and Game 3.
After he crosses halfcourt, Lowry motions to Leonard to come and get the ball.
With Ben Simmons pressuring Leonard beyond the 3-point line, Lowry has to dribble over to Leonard and hand the ball to him close to halfcourt.
To maximize spacing, Ibaka and Green spot-up in the corners; Ibaka in the left corner, Green in the right. Lowry joins them by parking himself on the left wing, clearing the right side of the floor for Leonard.
On his way to the left wing, Lowry motions to Gasol to set a screen for Leonard.
Leonard was one of the best pick-and-roll scorers in the league last season. According to NBA.com, he ranked in the 91st percentile with an average of 1.01 points per possession. He was even more efficient in the playoffs, averaging 1.06 points per pick-and-roll possession.
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Gasol was also one of the league's best pick-and-roll scorers last season. In the 26 games he played with the Raptors following the trade deadline, he ranked in the 79th percentile with an average of 1.24 points per possession as the roll man. He ranked in only the 33rd percentile with 1.00 points per possession in the 53 games he played with the Memphis Grizzlies prior to the trade deadline, but he led the league in scoring on those plays with 5.1 points per game.
Leonard sets his pick-and-roll with Gasol up perfectly by taking a couple of hard dribbles towards the 3-point line.
Had he not done that, Gasol would've had to set his screen beyond the 3-point line, which would've given Simmons an opportunity to duck underneath and recover in time to relieve Embiid from having to switch onto Leonard. By initiating the pick-and-roll at the 3-point line, Simmons has to go over the top to prevent Leonard from walking into a 3-pointer, a shot he made at a 34.2 percent clip in the regular season.
The problem? It forces Embiid to switch onto Leonard when Simmons gets caught up in Gasol's screen.
Embiid is more nimble than you'd expect for a player his size, but he's not able to stop Leonard from getting a shot off with the shot clock winding down.
Not that it was an easy shot for Leonard to make. According to NBA.com, Leonard was only 8-for-22 on step back 3-pointers during the regular season and 5-for-12 during the playoffs. On the list of shots the 76ers would rather Leonard take with the game on the line, a step back 3-pointer - going towards his right, no less - over the outstretched hands of Embiid was probably near the top of the list, if not at the very top.
"Embiid is a good defender, long," Leonard said after the game. "So, at the time, I just looked up at the shot clock and tried to get as much space as possible and just took a shot and believed that it was going to go in, and it did."
Just an incredible shot by an incredible player.
Why it matters: Who knows what would've happened had Leonard not made that shot.
The Raptors would've still led with under a minute remaining had Leonard missed, but a one-point deficit is far more manageable than a four-point deficit. For what it's worth, ESPN gave the Raptors a 64.8 percent of winning Game 4 when Ibaka rebounded Embiid's miss - decent odds, but far from a slam dunk. After Leonard's shot, their win probability spiked to 81.2 percent - basically a slam dunk.
Let's say Leonard did miss the shot and the 76ers found a way to win. Momentum would've been in their favour, as they would have won three straight games to take a 3-1 lead in the series. The list of teams to come back from being down 3-1 in a series is ... not long. It's only been done 11 times before in NBA history and only five times this century, most recently by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2016 NBA Finals.
In other words, losing Game 4 would've likely been the beginning of the end for the Raptors, meaning no Eastern Conference Finals appearance, no Finals appearance and no championship.
Nobody will ever forget the shot made in Game 7, but the one Leonard hit in Game 4 was just as important. It might have saved Toronto's championship season.
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