Christian Dypa

Kawhi Leonards Hand

Bounce… Bounce… Bounce… Bounce…

I am fame, but nobody knows me. I am a champion, but nobody congratulated me. I am a national hero, but nobody thanked me. I made history, but I am not mentioned. The entire world was watching me, but nobody recognized me. I am the right hand of Kawhi Leonard. They call me the claw.

May 12, 2019. Canada, Toronto (Ontario), Scotiabank Arena. NBA playoffs, Eastern Conference semifinals, Game 7. The Toronto Raptors hosting the Philadelphia 76ers. It was an epic game. People, newspapers and TV stations all over the world talked and reported about it. Every detail about the last seconds of this game is discussed abundantly over and over again. However, there is one perspective left out. The final 10.8 seconds of an historic NBA playoff game from my perspective – the perspective from Kawhi Leonard’s right hand. Here is my view on it. Nobody was as close as me to this situation. It was not Kawhi releasing the iconic bouncing clutch shot for the Toronto Raptors. But it was me, his hand – the claw.

Clutch situation. The game is on the line. The season is on the line. Everything is on the line.

10.8 seconds left on the game clock. We are up by one point. I am at the free throw line. I go up like I did it thousands of times. I sink the first free throw. Now, we are up by two points. The referee passes the ball to me for the second free throw. Thoughts starting to cross Kawhi’s mind: The free throw MUST go in too. We would be up by three points. It is only one additional point. But it makes an enormous difference in this situation. Our probability of winning this essential playoff game would soar up. Scotiabank Arena is watching us. Toronto is watching us. Canada is watching us. Millions around the globe are watching us at this crucial moment. So much depends on this key moment. Thus, it is important to make a perfect free throw to leave no room for doubts.

Still 10.8 seconds left on the game clock. Tension. Pressure. Nervousness. Kawhi’s mind is preoccupied with various thoughts about the second free throw, instead of focusing on shooting as accurately as possible. Kawhi’s brain is over-analyzing the task at hand. Basically, this is the same simple free throw that we practiced millions of times. But not this time. Thoughts about the actual mechanics of the free throw and “what-would-be”-thoughts compete for the same attention in Kawhi’s mind. But once a skill – like shooting a free throw – becomes automatic, thinking about its precise mechanics interferes with the ability to do it. After years of practice, free throw shooting became an unconscious process. However, those processes are most vulnerable to choking when explicitly thinking about it. Kawhi is tuned in to the precise details of the free throw motion. That has a negative effect on the shot itself… the free throw is short. It was not my mistake that we choked on that crucial free throw. It was Kawhi’s mind. Distraction and explicit monitoring impacted my shooting motion and the release of the ball from the free throw line negatively. Kawhi’s mind choked under pressure in this situation. I – the claw – did not choke. It was not my mistake. It was Kawhi’s brain sending atypical impulses via the nerve system for this free throw motion to me. That is why the ball bounces off the front rim and not into the basket. Rebound 76ers. Within 6.6 seconds Jimmy Butler ties the game with a layup.

Time-out. On the way to the bench, Kawhi’s head is hanging down. Bad mood. Worried and frustrated about the missed free throw. His angry eyes are facing the ground. For a split of a second, his eyes are glancing me and seeing me – the claw – being a clenched fist. Everyone starring at Raptors’ coach Nick Nurse and his clipboard, where he is drawing the final play. There is no doubt about, who is the one in this situation to make the final shot. It is the man and his hand, which arrived in Toronto as part of blockbuster deal with the San Antonio Spurs prior to the season. It is Kawhi and me – his hand aka the claw. Nick Nurse drawing a play, which the coaching staff specially designed for Kawhi and me. We ran this play over and over in training sessions and dozen of times in NBA games. The siren sounds. Time-out over. Back on the court. No time for thoughts. The audience in Scotiabank Arena is chanting loudly and continuously: Let’s go Raptors. Let’s go Raptors. Let’s go Raptors… Kawhi’s mind does not recognize that. Locked in.

4.2 seconds remaining. Kawhi and me are at the edge of the right side of the paint. 76ers’ player Ben Simmons is next to us with the task to defend us. Raptors’ player Marc Gasol is about to inbound the ball. Kawhi and me start running to the top of 3-point line. Simmons close to us. Our team-mate Pascal Siakam comes running to set the screen. That gives me the slight temporal advance to catch the ball safely. In this moment, Kawhi releases an increased amount of stress hormones – adrenaline and cortisol. That increases the heart rate and consequentially the breathing. Muscles are tensed. Sweat is coming through my pores. No time for any thoughts. The focus is entirely on executing the play on that we worked out every day. This play became an automatic process. Kawhi drives baseline to the corner at the right side of the court – that is our preferred spot. We shook off Ben Simmons. Still no time for thoughts. Just adrenaline, cortisol and the focus on scoring. Now, Joel Embiid – with a height of 7’0 – defending us. Stop. Pop. Drop.

0.3 seconds on the the game clock. I release the ball. I shoot the ball as high as I can to not getting blocked by Embiid. Close call though. Embiid’s right hand is just a couple of inches away from me and my shot. The ball flies over Embiid’s right hand. The ball is in the air on its way to the basket.

0.0 seconds. The buzzer sounds and at this exact moment the ball reached the highest point of its shooting curve. Thus, the ball is still in the air. The ball goes down. It hits the right side of the rim. It BOUNCES straight up. The ball is in the air again. It comes down. It hits the right side of the rim another time. It BOUNCES up to left side. It hits the left side of the rim. It BOUNCES up again. It comes down on the left side of the rim another time. It BOUNCES up again. It comes down. No bounce. The ball goes IN. Dagger. Buzzer beater. Game winner. Game, series over. 92-90. Raptors win it. Vast quantities of happiness hormones are released. Everyone jumping on Kawhi and me. An unforgettable moment.

Just two and a half minutes after this bouncing buzzer beater, the first interview. Kawhi is serious and calm as always in interviews, but I am incredibly hyped. I try to gain some attention by touching Kawhi’s face multiple times during this short courtside interview. But I do not get any attention though. I made this iconic bouncing buzzer beating shot. I am the right hand of Kawhi Leonard. They call me the claw. I should be known. I should be congratulated. I should be thanked. I should be mentioned. I should be recognized.