TORONTO — One of the memorable moments from Tuesday night at the Air Canada Centre, after the dagger threes from C.J. Miles and the alley-oop dunk from Delon Wright for the late-game killshot, came at the interview podium, where the Raptors’ All-Star backcourt suddenly became a comedy act.
Kyle Lowry, who is generally a taciturn sort but has been so giddy early in this playoff series that one wonders if he is hopped up on cold medication to fight the virus he’s carrying, started off by deferring all questions to DeMar DeRozan. Then, when asked specifically about DeRozan, Lowry noted that his backcourt partner “sucks as a friend.” (Pause for effect.) “But as a basketball player he’s really good.”
DeRozan was then asked about how he had approached Game 2, which began with him finding open teammates and then turned into the DeMar Show, a 37-point piece of art that showed off the full range of his scoring skills.
“I just let the game come to me,” DeRozan said, and then started to explain that in the new-look Toronto offence, he knows he can facilitate scoring if the opportunities are not there for him to make buckets. “It’s not like I gotta have the mindset to go out there and score 30, 40 points, I go out there and play agg — ”
Lowry cut him off right in the middle of the word: “You had 37, what do you mean?”
DeRozan: “I didn’t go out there saying, let me score 30 tonight — ”
Lowry, interrupting again: “I’m just saying, you had 37, don’t say it like that.”
DeRozan: “But I’m saying I didn’t go out — ”
Lowry: “All I’m saying is you can’t say that when you had 37 — ”
DeRozan: “Listen what I’m trying to explain!”
It went on like that for a while, like an old married couple or a pair of morning-drive radio hosts: Deebo and The Kyle on 97.5 The Dino. This is, to put it mildly, not normally how post-playoff press conferences have gone with the Raptors.
As goofy as the whole thing was, DeRozan was actually making sense. Or was trying to make sense in between getting cut off. The shooting guard has spent many nights in his playoff career firing jump shots with a hand in his face, trying to force scoring as though he was Option A and also Options B through F. Now, as part of the Raptors’ evolution, he is much more quick to pass out of a double team. He had two early assists on Tuesday night, including one to Jonas Valanciunas (!) behind the three-point line, and then ramped up his own scoring once the Wizards started giving him more space.
Coach Dwane Casey said on Wednesday that it took some time for DeRozan to feel comfortable in the new system. He said he had a sit-down with both starting guards after a game in Utah, when the season was just two weeks old. “They just they hadn’t got a feel for it yet, they hadn’t gotten a real understanding of when they were going get their shots, when they were going get their touches,” Casey said. He said he implored them to buy in to the new system, and they agreed to stick with it. “That was something that was huge for those guys,” Casey said, admitting that totally reworking a system that was statistically successful was a tricky sell.
But you just had to watch DeRozan in Game 2 to see why it was worth doing. He was either passing or attacking the rim or launching threes — from last year’s mid-range luddite to a modern NBA star, just like that. Last season, DeRozan had five or more assists in a game 26 times; this season he did that 50 times. And while he had 30 or more points in a game 32 times last year, he did that exactly half as often this season. In two playoff games, he’s averaged five assists and shot 50 per cent from the field, making more three pointers than anyone other than C.J. Miles.
“You take any star player in this league and tell them to change their style of play to fit the team, it’s a commendable thing for him and it’s not easy to do,” Casey said. Not that the job is fully complete; DeRozan did still attempt a couple of 21-foot two-pointers in Game 2. “If he could just step back a few inches, and he’d get those threes,” Casey said. “It’s not a finished product with him.”
That all this change has come in a year of personal challenges is only more impressive. DeRozan revealed his own battles with depression this season, and his father, Frank, has had serious health problems.
“To me, he’s like a son as far as just watching him grow up in the last seven years from a snotty-nosed kid in Compton to the man he is now, and taking on the family responsibility he’s taking on and still playing, Casey said. The elder DeRozan sent the team a video message from his hospital bed recently. “I mean, it brought tears to my eyes, anyway, to let the team know that he was pulling for the team,” Casey said. “DeMar, he’s doing a great job for what he’s going through in his personal life.”
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