DeMar DeRozan is still the key.
On Saturday night a win was the only thing that mattered. Erasing the memory of an 0-9 record in Game 1 took precedence over how the team actually looked, and for the most part the team looked great. Serge Ibaka reminded everyone why Toronto signed him in the offseason, the bench made up for a Fred VanVleet absence and Dwane Casey made the decisions of a coach who had been there before.
The pride in a Game 1 win is warranted, especially against a Wizards team that may have been challening for home-court advantage in the playoffs had they been healthy all season. With that barrier out of the way, the Raptors can now focus on a bigger goal. Toronto entered the postseason with a trip to the Finals on the midn and the only way they’re getting there is if their best player…plays like their best player.
Demar DeRozan stormed out of the gates to start the year and was at the very least an MVP nominee, if not an actual candidate. During December, at the peak of his powers, DDR was averaging 25.2 points with a true shooting percentage of .584. He was handing out 5.1 assists a game, pulling down 4.3 boards and doing it all in under 35 minutes a night DeRozan took control of a team that was trying to establish a new identity. He moved the ball, listened to his coach and was the silent leader for a young team that needed someone to look up.Whether it was a lack of interest in the regular season or getting used to simply playing less, DeRozan’s production began to waver. The wins kept piling up as Toronto marched towards a first seed in the Eastern Conference, and so we didn’t put his 16.4 points per game on just 39 percent from the field under a microscope. Again, when the Raptors vanquished the same foe that swept them in an ‘upset’ just a few years back, DeRozan’s performance went unnoticed.
Maybe it’s unfair to harp on a man that carried Toronto for long stretches of an already long season, but it’s fair to wonder when he’s going to carry that same team during the playoffs. In Game 1 DeRozan played the role of facilitator for most of the evening, and while it was nice to see – his passing isn’t going to be what the Raptors lean on late in tight games. He shot just 35% from the field and took just four free throws on the night. During the first half of Game 1 DeRozan looked borderline passive. He was great at dishing out of the double teams sent his way but wasn’t nearly assertive enough in attacking the basket or creating his own shot.
In the second half a switch seemed to flip. DeRozan understood how much a Game 1 win meant both for the team trying to advance deep into the postseason, but also for the entire culture going forward. He was more decisive in his attempts at the rim and knocked down some big threes to help put the game out of reach. It’s important to remember that this is a player who’s career averages in the postseason represent an ongoing struggle, not a mark of greatness. He’s put up 21.6 points on just 40% shooting from the field in his career during the extra season. His defence has been suspect and he has repeatedly been outplayed by his counterpart.
Something changed in the second half of Saturday’s game against the Wizards though, and it needs to stay that way. There can’t be many off-nights from the best player on your team regardless of how deep you are. With the world finally watching, the Raptors answered the bell, for now. DeRozan will decide if they can keep silencing the critics going forward.