2018 Raptors Playoff Preview: Which DeRozan, Lowry will show up?

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Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) and Guard Kyle Lowry walk off the court. (Frank Gunn/CP)

Dwane Casey called it “a yearly song we sing,” when summarizing his team’s stars this time last April: As DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry go, so do the Raptors.

For all the change this season — the ball-movement-heavy offence and the heavy utilization of the deepest bench in the league — the song remains the same.

As ever, DeRozan and Lowry hold the key to the Raptors’ success and are the two most instrumental players to what could be a 60-win regular season. But you’d be fair to enter the 2018 playoffs with a fair bit of skepticism.

While the duo haven’t exactly been the chokers they are sometimes made out to be, their post-season performances have certainly been inconsistent.

Of course, one area in which the Raptors have been remarkably consistent in is losing the first game of a playoff series — something the team has managed in all seven series in the Lowry and DeRozan era.

Prior to his Game 1 performance versus the Cavaliers last season (20 points on 7-of-13 shooting along with 11 assists in a double-digit loss), Lowry had averaged just 10 points on a collective 14-of-61 shooting (23 per cent) during Game 1 of every round the past two years.

Those shooting numbers are ghastly for any player, let alone one whose role requires him to shoot in volume. On the whole, Lowry’s shooting rates on two-point field goals are only mildly worse in the playoffs than the regular season (43 per cent compared to 40) but his three-point shooting dips more than eight per cent.

As the Raptors have been constructed the past few seasons, the team has depended heavily on its two stars to create offence and get buckets. It’s made game planning against Casey’s club fairly straightforward. Defences hone in on Lowry and DeRozan and the pair get fewer open looks, which can explain the drop in shooting efficiency.

Like Lowry, DeRozan’s shooting percentages drop in the post-season, and in the last two years he’s registered eight playoff games shooting less than 30 per cent — while attempting over 13 shots on average in those contests.

Their inefficiency was front and centre early during the 2016 playoffs, particularly in the first round versus the Indiana Pacers.

They struggled from the floor, but it didn’t stop the Raptors from reaching their first Eastern Conference Finals that season — although it definitely made it a lot harder on both the team and its fan base’s collective heart rate.

Of course, those bad nights have been offset by good ones and it’s been a common source of frustration over the years.

Following a rough opening round in the 2016 playoffs, Lowry came up big multiple times during that run, turning things around to score at least 33 points five times in the second and third rounds and registering memorable — and clutch — moments like this:

DeRozan, too, has had his moments. He averaged 32 points per game in the Raptors’ two victories versus Cleveland in the ’16 Conference Finals, and helped eliminate the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 6 last season thanks to a 32-point, five-steal performance in which he iced the game with this clutch dunk:

But then there’s the bad: With a chance to take a 2-1 lead against the Bucks last year, DeRozan went 0-for-8 from the floor for just eight points. And it wasn’t his only single-digit scoring performance of the 2017 playoffs. In Game 2 against the Cavs, a game in which Lowry exited with an ankle injury that would sideline him for the series, DeRozan managed only five points on 2-of-11 shooting.

DeRozan was slow to react to double- and triple-teams, and forced to take tough shot after tough shot. It was a defining moment that served as a catalyst for the fundamental changes that the Raps offence underwent in the off-season.

Both DeRozan and Lowry have adapted well to Toronto’s new systems and have benefited as a result.

DeRozan has continued to expand his game, and, surrounded by arguably the deepest and most talented roster he’s played on, has particularly become an effective playmaker which should serve him and the Raptors well if (read: when) those same double- and triple-teams show up this time around.

With the Raps blowing out games on a roster with two high-quality backup point guards, Lowry’s workload has lessened. He’s more rested at this point in the season than ever, and continues to find ways to contribute beyond scoring — he’s averaging more assists per 36 minutes than any other season in a Raptors uniform.

The Raps have built a contender around their two star guards, and commited nearly $240 million to keep both in a Toronto uniform for at least the next two seasons. And they did so expecting to get an on-court return on their investment.

This season more than ever the blueprint is in place for better, more consistent playoff performances from the Raptors’ all-star backcourt. And the team will need that to come to fruition if they want to capitalize on what is their best chance to reach the NBA Finals so far and provide a fitting outro to a historic season.

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