The likely Eastern Conference Player of the Month went 7-of-11 from the floor in the first half on Friday, scoring 19 points against a quality Charlotte Hornets defence that had little answer for his versatile offensive game. P.J. Hairston couldn’t keep up through screens, Jeremy Lamb was getting roasted in the post, and Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams could only help for stretches lest a size advantage be exposed elsewhere. And so DeRozan had his way in the first half of the Raptors’ 104-94 win.
Things took an unfamiliar turn out of the break, as DeRozan came out unable to draw a whistle, his liquid-hot jumper suddenly drying up. DeRozan would miss all seven of his field-goal attempts in the half, adding just four points on free throws. Based on how December went, and given the team’s history with the Hornets, that seemed a potential death knell.
“I really don’t think about it too much.” DeRozan said of the strangeness of going from so hot to so cold within a single game. “I just try to go out there and be aggressive and try to set the tone, and I know my teammates are gonna follow right behind.”
Follow right behind they did, eventually. The third quarter was shaky as the Raptors shot 22 per cent and the Hornets opened up an eight-point lead. Instead of wilting, the Raptors ratcheted up the defensive intensity and locked the Hornets down in the fourth quarter, while DeRozan ceded control of the offence to Kyle Lowry during his normal rest to start the final frame.
“We always talk about that. If it’s my quarter, his quarter, you got the next quarter,” DeRozan said after the game. “We try to feed off each other, then when it comes to crunch time, we understand who’s gonna close it out”
Lowry’s game unfolded much the opposite of DeRozan’s, as the point guard started out 3-of-10 to continue what’s been a tough couple of weeks from the floor. As DeRozan cooled, Lowry warmed, scoring 10 points and dishing three assists in the pivotal fourth quarter. He finished with his fourth double-double of the season, an 18-point, 11-assist effort that saw him completely take over the game late, including a crucial steal in the game’s closing minutes that more or less sealed the victory.
Being able to turn it on, quickly going from cold to hot, is perhaps as strange as the opposite. Staying positive amid early struggles isn’t the easiest of psychological tasks and Lowry leaned heavily on his teammates to keep him in the game.
“Those guys really pick me up and help me through,” Lowry said. “Those guys keep me up and make sure when it comes down to the fourth quarter that I’m into it.”
DeRozan echoed a similar sentiment, saying that knowing he has someone beside him who can help carry the offence makes a cold stretch easier to take. This sequencing isn’t at all new to Lowry and DeRozan, because they’ve spent the last three-plus years developing a familiarity that gets them through the ebbs and flows and sees them lean on each other instinctively throughout the course of the game.
“It’s that chemistry that we’ve got going on,” DeRozan said. “A lot of times we don’t even say it, we can just tell.”
The luxury to turn to a second capable scorer is one few teams have and one head coach Dwane Casey has been trying his best to maximize. The Raptors never want to play without one of their backcourt all-stars on the court, and while that’s unavoidable at times, the ability of each to change their role and approach makes it much easier. DeRozan is always a scorer, but he takes on an even larger role when Lowry hits the bench, attacking the rim even more frequently. Lowry, meanwhile, ratchets up the scoring when DeRozan sits, assuming some of his two-guard duties while Cory Joseph helps at the point.
As a result, their numbers increase when they’re apart, and they’re both surprisingly more efficient.
“That’s what they do,” Casey said. “DeMar, he’s our primary scorer and Kyle, when’s he’s in there by himself, he’s one of our primary scorers.”
The team is at its best when Lowry and DeRozan share the floor, but they can’t do that for 48 minutes a game or 82 games a season. The chemistry they’ve built not only serves to raise the Raptors’ ceiling, but it provides an appreciable floor in the event of a cold quarter, a bad night, a sustained slump, or even an injury. Lowry had a strong case for Player of the Month in November and put the team on his back when DeRozan was hurt a season ago. DeRozan’s carried the water for most of December. They’re the best versions of themselves in part because they have each other.
We should all be so lucky.