TORONTO — DeMar DeRozan had no clue that he was flirting with NBA history as he sized up the basket from the free-throw line with 0.9 seconds left in regulation. But he did check the location of Damian Lillard.
A two-point lead, with the other team out of timeouts and a desperation heave their only likely option might not seem like a dicey situation. But Lillard already had 50 points — 22 in the fourth quarter, for Pete’s sake — and had already made one Curry-esque prayer. On the Toronto Raptors bench, rookies Norman Powell and Delon Wright chatted. "Yeah, we agreed it was more fun watching him (Lillard) do that on TV," Powell said.
Or perhaps a video game, which is how DeRozan described Lillard’s performance. "Video game," he repeated a second time, for emphasis.
DeRozan’s free throw hit the front of the rim, but nothing further resulted and the Raptors escaped the Air Canada Centre with their 12th consecutive home win, a 117-115 victory over their mirror image Portland Trail Blazers.
This game was billed as a matchup of electric backcourts, and it didn’t disappoint. DeRozan finished with 38 points — including a jaw-dropping 24-for-25 effort from the charity stripe — to go along with Kyle Lowry’s 28 points. That was swell, but it paled in comparison to Lillard’s 50 points and C.J. McCollum’s 24.
No player in NBA history has gone 25-for-25 at the free-throw line, in the regular-season or playoffs. DeRozan is the first player to make 24 free throws since Dwight Howard made 25 on March 12, 2013. Dominique Wilkins holds the record for most free throws in a game without a miss (23) while Kevin Durant and Deron Williams both finished games 21-for-21. Given the manner in which officials Eric Lewis, Lauren Holtkamp and Scott Wall seemed motivated to leave their imprimatur on this game — the teams combined for 65 personal fouls, with Raptors bigs Luis Scola and Jonas Valanciunas picking up two each in the first five minutes — it was a good night to go perfect. Or, almost perfect.
Eighty-nine free-throws were attempted, 54 by the Raptors.
"It was one of those fun games to be a part of," said DeRozan, who achieved a season-high for points without attempting a three-pointer, going 7-for-19 from the field. "Everybody was aggressive. I was just taking what they were giving me, to be honest. I wasn’t trying to force anything."
Given the manner in which these two backcourts were eying each other before the game, getting production from elsewhere was vital and the Raptors received their extra push from Jonas Valanciunas (17 points, 10 rebounds) and Norman Powell, who started in place of James Johnson and scored 10 points with six assists in 21 minutes.
Casey elected to go small at the start and let Powell guard McCollum, freeing up DeRozan and, as it turned out, likely keeping him out of foul trouble. This is how streaks are put together: with game-changing spurts from Lucas Nogueira earlier in the week, and Powell’s contributions 24 hours after a 30-point outing in the D-League.
"It was strictly a matchup situation," Casey said. "I’m very confident (with Powell). The hustle, the fight, the grit he gave us against those guys to try and wear them down … just his energy gave us a bump to go against a team that plays with two guards like that."
DeRozan shrugged off his almost-date with history. Casey told him after the game that because the Trail Blazers had no timeouts left, either outcome on the final free throw was OK. Lowry, who had an animated discussion with Casey as DeRozan checked over his shoulder before taking the final free throw, gave his teammate good-natured jibes afterward, noting that: "There was kind of a lack of communication."
Some were saying miss it; others were saying make it.
"I didn’t know," DeRozan said of the possible record. "I had no clue. I’ll get a chance to get it again. I don’t know how long I’ll have to wait, but I’ll get a chance."
Lowry said afterward that the showdown between two of the game’s marquee backcourts "was nothing personal," but Lillard didn’t seem to take it that way. He started the fourth quarter getting a breather on the bench, but came in earlier than usual.
"When coach (Terry Stotts) takes me out, he says: ‘Trust me, trust me.’ We nod at each other and tonight he happened to look down the bench a little earlier in the fourth quarter and I just nodded my head like, ‘I’m ready to do this,’ and a couple seconds later he said, ‘Dame, let’s go.’
"I told myself when I was on the bench that when I get back in the game I’m going after this game; I’m going to try and take over this game."
He did just that. But in a game that was decided at the free-throw line, it was DeRozan’s steady hand that won the day.