The Toronto Raptors appear to enjoy making life more difficult for themselves than it perhaps needs to be.
In four consecutive games now, the Raptors have spotted opponents a double-digit lead. Those gaps – 17, 17, 12, and 17 points – have put the Raptors up against the wall, forcing head coach Dwane Casey to roll the dice with stranger and stranger lineups, the team eschewing all sense of familiarity or comfort. That weirdness, that experimentation, and the instinctual, communicate-or-die attitude that becomes necessity, has been something the Raptors have embraced. It is an objectively bad thing that the Raptors keep digging themselves early holes. It is a positive, and a testament to the strength of their collective wll, that they keep digging out.
Monday was the fourth game in a row they’ve fell behind a dozen or more and the fourth in a row in which they’ve come back to win. The last three of those have been without Kyle Lowry. Life without Lowry was always going to be tough for the Raptors. He is their Queen Bee, their top playmaker, their engine, and their spirit. When locked in, he’s the tone-setter on defense. His shooting – he’s the only high-volume 3-point shooter left on the roster with any substantial track record of making opponents pay consistently for giving him a hint of breathing room – provides crucial oxygen for an offense that spends long stretches gasping like it’s Wade Wilson. He is beyond important.
But he is not alone as the leader of this team, flanked by another capable All-Star, one who appears to want to salt the earth in his partner’s absence.
To Toronto fans, DeMar DeRozan is a conquering hero. Drafted and developed at home, he’s become the face of the franchise, one of its greatest stars, and perhaps its most important figure who is more than 50 percent man. “I got us,” and all. To opposing teams of late, though, DeRozan is a super villain. His dominance knows no bounds, it recognizes no relent, and it cares not for the absence of Lowry. It’s as if DeRozan has introspected at the thought of a potential Kryptonite and willed his body to create an antidote in the form of snaking dribbles through traffic, barrages to the rim that force onlookers to simply flail and send him to the line, and an untouchable turn-around jumper that would make another one of basketball’s great hero-villains blush. Heroism and villainy are all about perspective, see, and DeRozan’s mastery comes at a price to the other side.
On Monday, DeRozan unleashed the whole package on an unsuspecting Gotham. He posted 37 points on 13-of-25 shooting. He scored the Raptors’ final 12 points after an oddly mashed-together bench unit (in other words: every unit that doesn’t include DeRozan right now) helped further trim the early 17-point deficit to an attackable margin. In crunch time, DeRozan scored off of a well-drawn play out of a timeout reminiscent of Cory Joseph’s game-winner against Washington a while back, a perfect execution in a two-for-one scenario. The Knicks responded with a Cournety Lee three off of an offensive rebound to take the lead back. DeRozan simply went back to work. Everyone in Madison Square Garden knew what was coming, and DeRozan casually stepped to the elbow with his back turned to Derrick Rose, jabbed one way to establish a pivot, and turned around over the opposite shoulder to let fly with a game-winning jumper with 1.9 seconds left on the clock.
This is what DeRozan has done since the break. Really, it’s what DeRozan’s done for long chunks of the season, including his torrid start that put the world on notice that he had somehow gotten even better this year. With Lowry shelved, DeRozan’s recognized the need to put an even greater weight on his own shoulders, carrying the offense. Sure, it would be nice to have a more varied attack, and that will become a necessity at some point in the near future. But DeRozan can’t knock down his teammates’ open shots – they were 6-of-23 on threes – and he can’t establish good position for them – the lack of shooting allowed the Knicks to swarm every Raptor big aggressively – and he can’t make something out of 4-on-3 situations once he passes out of the hard double-teams that are coming right past half court.
All he can do is do what he can, and that’s the “everything” that’s been asked of him so far. He’s dropped 43, 33, and 37 over the last three games, totaling 113 points on just 69 shots. He has been as efficient as is reasonable to believe possible with this kind of workload, without the proper spacing, and without a 3-point shot of his own to boost the per-attempt numbers. He’s been masterful, and the Raptors have needed every last one of his baskets and free throws to make these last three comebacks possible. He is remarkable, and with Lowry down and every iota of attention being dialed in on him, there is compelling evidence that there’s not a damn thing an opponent can do about it right now. He’s on that high a level. There hasn’t been a three-performance stretch like this since Nick Jonas was last on tour.
There was a game outside of just DeRozan, too, but it was ugly enough that it’s probably just best to gloss over it. The Raptors played fairly solid defense throughout, but the offense was ugly, with limited ball movement and untimely shooting from the supporting cast. Jonas Valanciunas had a nice offensive performance with a shaky defensive one, playing in somewhat of a new role as Casey tried to shorten the rotation and use Valanciunas to prop up the second unit. Foul trouble for him led Casey to call on Jakob Poeltl, with Lucas Nogueira relegated to one second of action defending an inbound. Fred VanVleet saw time alongside Delon Wright as part of a fun group that sparked a great run in the fourth.
As has become the custom, Casey searched – and to his credit, kept trying new things – for something that worked, a fivesome that clicked at both ends, and that gave consistent effort. Right now, that’s a different unit each time until the final few minutes, when Casey’s locked in to the starters with P.J. Tucker, an absolute animal and the burgeoning definition of a no-stats All-Star, in place of Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka sliding to center. In the four comeback wins, the Raptors have outscored opponents 124-80 while holding them to 36 percent from the floor in fourth quarters, a sample that includes a final frame against Portland that was much better than the shooting results suggest. It’s been discussed plenty how much the extra defender, and the ability to switch everywhere and help out the defender at the point of attack, really allows the defense to get going, and it was no different here against a Knicks team a little light on options.
This is the formula with Lowry down, and it’s a shaky one: Get contributions from the role players, let the defense rise up because the offense might tick downward, and ask the world of DeRozan for however long he’s able to give it to you. That’s it. Defend hard, have two or three guys step up, and get DeRozan to deliver buckets, buckets, buckets.
— #GonzoForLonzo (@World_Wide_Wob) February 28, 2017
It’s not going to work night in and night out, and the Raptors barely survived a pretty woeful Knicks team. But they’re in survival mode right now. Despite that and the additional obstacles they’ve put in their own way early in games, they’ve won four in a row, trimmed the Atlantic Division deficit to two games, and jumped back in front of the Washington Wizards ahead of a home-and-home later this week that will determine the tiebreaker between the two teams. In the words of another Compton native, only the strongest survive. DeRozan and the Raptors are proving P.J. Tucker levels of strong right now.
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