TORONTO — When Kawhi Leonard’s series-winning buzzer-beater hung on the rim for four excruciatingly long bounces Sunday night, it created a remarkable scene where time seemed to stand still at Scotiabank Arena.
The ball eventually dropped in the basket, giving the Toronto Raptors their biggest shot in franchise history and a berth in the NBA’s Eastern Conference final.
It also provided an indelible moment for photographers who had a chance to capture that rare momentous picture that had a little bit of everything.
“Ultimately that’s what we try to do in photojournalism is to tell a story in a single image,” said Canadian Press photographer Frank Gunn. “This is one of those moments where everything came together.”
On the play, Leonard dribbled to the corner of the court and let an arching jumper fly over the outstretched fingertips of Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid.
Leonard took a few steps backward before squatting in front of the Toronto bench once the ball hit the rim, his tongue out hanging to the side with the towering Embiid watching anxiously beside him.
A wide mix of facial expressions from Leonard’s teammates was on display as the game and series hung in the balance.
Bounce. Another bounce.
With the tension palpable, Patrick McCaw’s mouth was agape. Danny Green stood frozen. OG Anunoby looked frightened. Jeremy Lin’s eyebrows were raised.
Jodie Meeks was ready to pop. Eric Moreland was in mid-squat behind Jordan Loyd, whose mouth was opened wider than McCaw’s.
Sensing the worst, Philadelphia’s Jimmy Butler looked coldly at the hoop. 76ers teammate Ben Simmons pressed his lips together in a grim look of defeat.
One last bounce. And in.
Euphoria gripped the home arena and the normally reserved Leonard let out a guttural roar for the ages as he was swarmed by teammates.
“Normally the reactions and the facial expressions don’t have time to form and become fully realized before something is over and it’s just the celebration,” Gunn said. “The tension had time to build in all of these players and all of these people as they were watching — positive and negative.”
The bucket completed Leonard’s 41-point night and gave Toronto a 92-90 Game 7 victory.
Toronto Sun photographer Stan Behal’s picture — complete with “The Shot!” headline — took up the newspaper’s entire front page. He captured it from his perch in an aisle about 25 rows up from the floor.
“Everybody is riveted and everybody is focused on the ball,” Behal said. “The ball is in the foreground out of focus. All of the faces in the background are in focus. The expressions are priceless. It has all of the elements.”
Floor space is at a premium in the playoffs so many photographers shoot from throughout the arena. Steve Russell (Toronto Star), Nathan Denette (CP) and Mark Blinch (NBA), among others, also generated memorable shots from courtside locations to way up in the media gondola.
Rick Madonik of the Toronto Star had a couple pictures go viral. It didn’t take long for the kudos to come pouring in via social media.
Sports Illustrated tweeted a Madonik picture of Embiid, Leonard and Loyd all looking at the rim with the caption: “What an absolutely incredible photo.”
Don Van Natta Jr., of ESPN called it ”one of the best sports photos of all time.” Van Natta also tweeted Behal’s cover shot, simply saying: “Wow.”
“The New Yorker” also trumpeted Madonik’s work, which appeared on the front of the Toronto Star sports section.
Madonik, who was shooting from the gondola, said Embiid’s body language contrasted nicely with the position and expression of Leonard and Loyd, creating a “weird composition” that still managed to look balanced.
“It was like three different kinds of faces all looking at the same moment,” Madonik said. “I wasn’t actually showing the moment, so it kind of even made it a little bit more mysterious.”
Gunn, who was stationed between the bench and the basket, was locked in on Leonard from his shot release through to the celebration.
His up-close jubilation shots of Leonard in peak yell, draped by his ecstatic teammates, made the front page of the Star and The Globe and Mail.
“It was quite funny watching their faces and then I saw a reaction like nobody even thought existed in Kawhi,” Gunn said.
Next up for the Raptors is a best-of-seven series against the Bucks starting Wednesday in Milwaukee.
The winner will advance to the NBA Finals.