Home Sports N.B.A. Roundup: N.B.A. Playoffs: Raptors and Trail Blazers Make Conference Finals

N.B.A. Roundup: N.B.A. Playoffs: Raptors and Trail Blazers Make Conference Finals

TORONTO — When the ball left Kawhi Leonard’s hands on a fade away from the right baseline, with the final buzzer blaring as it arced toward the basket, it looked just a bit off.

But then it bounced on the rim once. It bounced twice. Miraculously, it bounced a third and a fourth time. And as if the ghosts of Toronto Raptors past, the Damon Stoudamires and Morris Petersons of the world (plus Jose Calderon sitting courtside), secretly gave a helpful nudge, the ball went through the net, in a split second drastically altering the fortunes of two teams, perhaps commencing the dismantling of one.

The Raptors won — no, escaped — Game 7 by an inch, beating the Philadelphia 76ers, 92-90, and sending them to the Eastern Conference finals Wednesday against the well-rested Milwaukee Bucks, and the Sixers home for the summer, to reassess The Process, the euphemism often used to discuss their rebuild in recent years.

“I just knew I had to shoot it high,” Leonard, who scored 41 points on a whopping 39 shots, said after the game. He added later, “I knew it was Game 7. I didn’t want to leave no shots in my mind. I just wanted to go out and leave it all on the floor. This could’ve been my last game for the season.”

Leonard, who rarely shows emotion, let out a scream as the ball went through the bottom of the net.

Toronto rode the back of Leonard, who hit one of the most remarkable game-winners in N.B.A history over the outstretched arms of the Sixers center Joel Embiid, who was so distraught by the shot that he wept as he walked off the floor amid Toronto’s celebrations.

“Game 7. Losing a game that way. Last shot after a hard fought game,” Embiid said, struggling to find words at the podium. “I feel that we had a chance. A lot of things go through your mind. It sucks. I don’t know. I can’t explain it.”

Even with the ball bouncing on the rim for what seemed like an eternity, Toronto’s coach, Nick Nurse, said afterward that he thought the shot was going in immediately.

“It was going in the whole time to me,” Nurse said. “Obviously, it’s a nice lucky bounce. I thought we were very unlucky for a lot of that game.”

The contest was a back-and-forth grueling affair — with 10 lead changes and seven ties. Neither team shot well — the Raptors at 38 percent and the Sixers at 43. It took almost five minutes for Philadelphia to score at the start of the game, racking up only 13 points in the first quarter. Both teams clamped down defensively, sending double-teams to smother each franchise cornerstone, Leonard and Embiid. Embiid, who struggled all series fighting various injuries, played all but three minutes of the game, scoring 21 points on 18 shots, and grabbing 11 rebounds. Only one of his six three-pointers went in.

In a shining example of basketball being a game of inches, Leonard was this close to being a scapegoat. With 10 seconds left, Leonard went to the free throw line with Toronto up, 89-88. He hit the first one, but the second clanged off the rim, and Philadelphia raced down court. Jimmy Butler, who scored 16 points, tied the game on a layup, setting up Leonard’s heroics.

“I was very mad. I tried to raise down and get a rebound. Probably should’ve sprinted back to give some help on that layup Jimmy made,” Leonard said.

Now, Philadelphia goes back to the drawing board, after another crushing loss in the second round of the playoffs. Elton Brand, the franchise’s general manager, must consider whether the Sixers have peaked. The Sixers cashed in their chips to acquire Butler and Tobias Harris, both of whom are free agents this summer. And speculation about Brown’s job security has swirled recently. But Embiid, who frequently has used “Trust The Process” as his catch phrase, was in no mood to discuss the franchise’s future.

“I don’t give a damn about The Process,” Embiid said.

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C.J. McCollum, being defended by Torrey Craig, scored 37 points to lead the Trail Blazers past the Nuggets.CreditDavid Zalubowski/Associated Press

TRAIL BLAZERS 100, NUGGETS 96 C. J. McCollum scored 37 points and Portland overcame a 17-point first-half deficit to win at Denver and advance to the Western Conference finals for the first time since 2000.

Evan Turner, who scored just 4 points in the first six games of the series, added 14, including 10 in the fourth quarter. The Trail Blazers will again be on the road, facing the two-time-defending N.B.A. champion Golden State Warriors beginning Tuesday night.

McCollum’s big game helped make up for a lackluster one by Damian Lillard, who made just 3 of 17 shots and scored 13 points. He did make two crucial 3-pointers in the fourth quarter. The first one gave Portland an 81-76 lead. The second, off Lillard’s steal of Jokic’s outlet pass, made it 92-85.

The Nuggets raced to a 39-22 lead, and Game 7 was beginning to look a lot like Game 5, when Denver blew out Portland by 26 points in Denver. But Trail Blazers Coach Terry Stotts called a timeout with 7:26 left in the second quarter, and his team began chipping away.

“There wasn’t going to be any quit,” Stotts said, adding, “It was just about regrouping.”

The Blazers were behind, 48-39, at halftime and trailed by just a point head into the fourth quarter.

That is when the Nuggets’ hopes of reaching their first Western Conference finals in a decade died with a 7-of-24 shooting performance, including 3 of 10 from Nikola Jokic, who tearfully blamed himself in the locker room for the loss despite leading Denver with 29 points and 13 rebounds.

Nonsense, said Nuggets Coach Michael Malone, who suggested Jokic established himself during these playoffs as the best big man in basketball and he only petered out at the end because the Nuggets had to rely so heavily on the 7-foot All-Star.

“I hope after 14 playoff games, America, everyone around the world, came to appreciate his game,” Malone said. “For him to be as emotional and upset as he was speaks to his caring.”(AP)