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Better walkoff series-winner: Kawhi Leonard's or Damian Lillard's?

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Kawhi Leonard celebreates after making the game-winning shot against Philadelphia. (The Canadian Press via AP)
Kawhi Leonard celebreates after making the game-winning shot against Philadelphia. (The Canadian Press via AP)


Kawhi Leonard launched a corner 2-pointer Sunday night that somehow got out of the starting gate over Joel Embiid before the buzzer sounded. The ball found the rim. Four times. Four bounces off the rim before the ball settled through the net and gave Toronto a 92-90 victory over Philadelphia in Game 7 of their Eastern Conference semifinal series. And only one thing came to mind.

Was that a bad shot?

There have been scant few walkoff series-winning shots in NBA history. Perhaps no more than seven, though the archives aren’t clear. This isn’t baseball. Anyway, just a handful of series-ending baskets, shots that were true after the buzzer sounded and sent one team into delirium and another to season-ending defeat.

And two have come this postseason. You know quite well the other one. Damian Lillard’s 37-foot buzzer-beater knocked out the Thunder almost three weeks ago. Lillard’s 12-yard shot gave Portland a 117-115 victory over OKC in Game 5 of their first-round series.

Thunder star Paul George defended Lillard on the play, and I asked him what’s the defensive mindset in that kind of situation. Is there anything a defender can do other than let him shoot and live with the result?

George famously answered this way: “That’s a bad shot. I don’t care what anybody says, that’s a bad shot. But hey, he made it. That story will be told that it was a bad shot. You live with that.”

George was branded a sore loser for calling it a bad shot.

OK, but now we have two walkoff series-winners, neither of which was particularly easy. Maybe we should look at the question – and George’s answer – again. Was Lillard’s game-winner a bad shot? Was Leonard’s Sunday night?

There are many differences in the two shots, but perhaps none moreso than this: Lillard took the shot he wanted to take; Leonard took the shot he had to take. Lillard dribbled out the clock seemingly on the other side of the Willamette River. He chose that shot to break the tie. Leonard’s shot was born of necessity. Four seconds left in the game when the Raptors inbounded the ball, Leonard was well-guarded by Ben Simmons and had to drive circular to find free space. But Embiid was there to pick up the slack, and the buzzer was looming, and Leonard found himself in the corner, which is a good place to be for three points – a shorter shot for the bonus – but a horrible place to be for two points, since the backboard can provide scant help.

The NBA officially listed Leonard’s shot as a 15-footer. No way that’s right. His feet were barely inside the 3-point line, which is 22 feet from the basket in the corner. Leonard has big feet, but not that big. That was an 18-20 foot shot. (For the record, I’ve gone back and studied Lillard’s shot; I think it was in the neighborhood of 37 feet).

So how had Leonard fared on such shots this season? Well, Leonard shot 45.4 percent on shots from 15-19 feet this season. But that’s all shots, from all points on the court, and some of those were wide open. He made 46.3 percent of his fadeaway jumpers and 36.6 percent of his stepback 2-point jumpers.

But there are other numbers. Leonard made 35.1 percent of his shots when the shot clock was under four seconds, and his walkoff game-winner qualifies as something similar. On shots longer than 10 feet, Leonard made just 28.6 percent of his shots when guarded “very tight,” with a defender 0-2 feet away, but he made 42 percent of his shots when guarded “tight,” with a defender 2-4 feet away. Was Embiid guarding Leonard “tight” or “very tight?” Hard to say. Tough, either way.

Put it all together, and Leonard hit a very tough shot. Not a great vantage point to get a roll, a great and big defender on him, no time to improvise. Difficult circumstances, and Leonard came through.

You want similar numbers on Lillard? Sorry. They don’t exist. Oh, sure, Lillard  has launched a ton of shots at least 30 feet. But 37 feet? In the last three years, Lillard had taken no shots – other than halfcourt heaves – from at least 35 feet.

None. Bad shot? Who would know? It was an undiscovered shot. Uncharted territory.

Steph Curry, the NBA’s greatest long-distance bombardier, in the last five years has tried 12 3-pointers of at least 35 feet, discounting heaves. He’s made three.

Maybe Lillard practices those shots. Probably does. Most certainly does. Maybe he even makes his fair share.

But with the series on the line, Lillard took a shot he never takes a game. Leonard took a shot – a difficult shot, a Herculean shot – that he has taken a bunch. A mid-range jumper with a great defender on him.

And it’s not like Lillard was wide open. Remember, it wasn’t a stepback jumper. It was a sidestep jumper. Lillard had to dribble a step to his right to create space to clear George.

PG was right. Lillard took a bad shot, because he wanted to. And he made it. Leonard took a difficult shot because he had to. And he made it. That’s what makes them both great players.

Related Photos
Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard, center, reacts with teammates after making the game-winning shot as Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) walks away at the end of an NBA Eastern Conference semifinal basketball game, in Toronto, Sunday, May 12, 2019. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)

Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard, center, reacts with teammates after making the game-winning shot as Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) walks away at the end of an NBA Eastern Conference semifinal basketball game, in Toronto, Sunday, May 12, 2019. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press...

<figure><img src="//cdn2.newsok.biz/cache/r960-aabe376d74ac0b7628df027be851f33e.jpg" alt="Photo - Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard, center, reacts with teammates after making the game-winning shot as Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) walks away at the end of an NBA Eastern Conference semifinal basketball game, in Toronto, Sunday, May 12, 2019. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)" title="Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard, center, reacts with teammates after making the game-winning shot as Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) walks away at the end of an NBA Eastern Conference semifinal basketball game, in Toronto, Sunday, May 12, 2019. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)"><figcaption>Toronto Raptors forward Kawhi Leonard, center, reacts with teammates after making the game-winning shot as Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid (21) walks away at the end of an NBA Eastern Conference semifinal basketball game, in Toronto, Sunday, May 12, 2019. (Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press via AP)</figcaption></figure>
Berry Tramel

Berry Tramel, a lifelong Oklahoman, sports fan and newspaper reader, joined The Oklahoman in 1991 and has served as beat writer, assistant sports editor, sports editor and columnist. Tramel grew up reading four daily newspapers — The Oklahoman,... Read more ›

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