DeMar DeRozan drained a pair of free throws, putting the Raptors up 102-99 with 13.9 seconds remaining of game 5. Toronto then survived a last second 3 pointer that Indiana’s Solomon Hill’s came agonisingly close to getting off before the buzzer. DeRozan never looked like missing, ice in his veins, the stone cold game-clincher that Toronto has been struggling without for the first 4 games of the series.
There is no getting around it, DeRozan and his backcourt ally and close friend Kyle Lowry have been horrible for most of this series. Their flourishing bromance on and off the court appeared to have ground to a halt in the face of Indiana’s defence, spearheaded by Paul George, who had rendered DeRozan almost completely impotent.
Last night was a different story, DeRozan seemingly liberated by the early deficit Toronto faced, finally found his groove in the playoffs. Slashing to the basket and crucially getting to the free throw line often, a key part of his game that has been noticeably absent. DeMar was 12 of 13 from the stripe and looked back to his regular season best. DeRozan’s big night kept the Raptors in touch throughout a game that threatened to get away from them for much of the first 3 quarters. Then a 23-2 Raptors run to start the 4th, sparked by Toronto’s bench inside an increasingly hysteric Air Canada Centre, ultimately won the game and sealed an improbable comeback victory.
What fans in the frozen north hope is that this victory will bring an end to 15 years of playoff heartbreak. Not since Vinsanity have the Raptors tasted a series victory in the playoffs, and last years humiliating sweep at the hands of the Wizards reinforced the idea that Toronto always finds a way to lose come April. DeRozan and Lowry’s terrible starts to the series had Toronto fans fearing the worst as the team laboured to a 2-2 split through the first 4 games. Their inability to create good looks for themselves or effectively delegate to less talented team mates was painful to watch. DeRozan in particular seemed timid, settling for far too many contested mid-range jumpers and not attacking the basket with his usual ferocity.
Mid way through the 3rd DeRozan blew past his tormentor George and threw down a two handed dunk which will give the Raptors confidence he can overcome his struggles against PG13. This along with a couple more plays to end the game will have given Raptors coaches and fans alike hope that DeRozan has snapped out of his funk. With the game tied at 92 he hit a rare 3 pointer to give Toronto the lead, on the next position DeMar drove to rim, waited for the defence to collapse to him and kicked the ball out to a wide open Corey Joseph for 3 more. A more decisive and aggressive DeRozan can take the pressure of Kyle Lowry and allow big man Jonas Valanciunas to get more involved. This will be absolutely vital if the Raptors are not only to advance but seriously compete at the top end of the East, as their 56 regular season wins dictate they should.
Toronto fans have deserved better from their team over last 15 years. At no other arena do thousands of fans congregate outside, often in freezing temperatures, just to watch the games on a big screen. There is a serious passion for basketball in Toronto which didn’t exist 20 years ago and these fans are hungry for some success. This success will be tied to the form of DeRozan throughout the rest of the playoffs. It’s great to see a player like DeRozan, a shooting guard without a consistent jump shot, in the model of a Dwayne Wade or Jordan (dare you compare anyone to the great MJ) thrive in a league which increasingly values 3 point shooters. Hopefully the Raptors can advance and we can all get our fix of mid range, fadeaway jumpers from DeRozan.