MILWAUKEE – Next time it’s going to be different.
That was DeMar DeRozan’s pledge less than 24 hours after one of the worst games of his career and one of the worst moments for the Raptors in his eight seasons.
He was 0-for-8 from the floor. His team scored 17 points in the first 17 minutes of the game. The outcome of an important playoff game was decided by halftime.
“[I take it] tremendously personally,” said DeRozan as the Raptors gathered for practice after a lengthy film session at their hotel with Game 4 of their best-of-seven first-round series with the Milwaukee Bucks. “Like I said, it won’t be the outcome tomorrow. Things happen, there’s a side of me that’s gonna come out after I feel like I let my team down and every individual out there feels the same way.
“It’s going to be a different team tomorrow.”
Well, it better be, or chances are it will be a much different team next year too. Any pretence the Raptors have of being a team that has any ambitions beyond stacking up 50-win seasons is riding on it.
Not only is the book out on how to defend DeRozan, his running mate Kyle Lowry and by extension the Raptors as a whole, there’s a children’s edition with large print and pictures.
The Raptors have now played six playoff series in the past four seasons and the trio of DeRozan, Lowry and head coach Dwane Casey has seen the same movie, over and over again: teams aggressively send additional defenders at the Raptors all-stars confident that they’ll either get rushed into mistakes under pressure or will be let down by their supporting cast if they do make the right choices.
The Raptors have been the higher seed in every series they’ve played other than against the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference finals but their cumulative 14-20 record certainly doesn’t reflect it, not even close.
And until DeRozan, Lowry and Casey figure it out they’ll be seeing long agile defenders rushing at them in their sleep. So far, it’s worked like a charm, and never more than in Game 3 against the Bucks as the Raptors scored 30 points in the first half and 48 after three quarters.
They have played six halves of basketball against Milwaukee and twice been held to seven field goals over the course of 24 minutes – the second half of Game 1 and the first half of Game 3.
In between, the Raptors did win in Game 2, but only after giving up a 12-point fourth-quarter lead and two wide-open three-point attempts in the final two minutes with the game tied.
The Raptors came into the playoffs enjoying the edge in experience, home-court advantage, a 13-2 regular-season record against Milwaukee over the past four seasons and a 2-1 edge in all-stars.
None of it has mattered. The Bucks have been the better team, holding the Raptors to just 95.4 points per 100 possessions – 14.4 less than their regular-season mark – while knocking down 46.4 per cent of their three-point attempts, best among the 16 playoff teams.
The Raptors have a very short timeframe to figure out a problem that’s been four years in the making.
“It’s frustrating,” said DeRozan. “You don’t want to go out and lose the way we did. We just got to use it as motivation, man. It’s embarrassing to lose like that, especially in the post-season, to play like that on both ends.
“It’s on us to come out this next game and tie it up.”
Were it only so simple. No team is a perfectly functioning organism and losing – particularly losing in high-stakes situations – usually shows the cracks in the foundation.
Lowry’s already made some strange comments during the series – his “I guess I’ll have to force more shots” line after Game 1 most prominent among them.
And while Casey has been preaching ball movement non-stop, DeRozan didn’t seem to take that too kindly after Game 3 when as the Raptors’ leading scorer argued that the passes would have been fine if someone would make a shot.
And while Bucks head coach Jason Kidd has looked good at every turn – virtually eliminating Mirza Teletovic from his rotation after Game 1; running with rookie Thon Maker in the fourth quarter of Game 2 while sitting Tony Snell and getting some useful minutes from Michael Beasley in Game 3, Casey’s moves have yet to bear fruit other than finding some use for Delon Wright in Game 3.
And why did he wait so long before turning to Wright at end of the second quarter in Game 3 with the game already virtually decided?
But pointing fingers at this point will only guarantee a quick demise.
All three of the Raptors’ longest-standing citizens will have to wear it in some shape or form if they can’t collectively solve a rotation that features two rookie starters and a not-quite murderer’s row of role players in the form of Snell, Matthew Dellavedova and Jason Terry.
Casey’s long-term employment could be at risk and the idea that Lowry is going to be able to command a $200-million maximum contract as a free agent seems more absurd by the day as his post-season struggles overshadow his regular-season successes.
And DeRozan’s hard-earned reputation as the type of scorer who can take over games will take a blow if he can’t do it when defences are dialled in and paying attention.
For the moment, DeRozan said his confidence remains strong, the latest loss just a hiccup, a momentary glitch.
“I don’t think confidence gets shaken,” he said. “If you’re a competitor, you can’t wait to get back out there and redeem yourself. I think that’s where we’re at, that’s personally where I’m at, more so than ever. Just get back out there, give ourselves another opportunity to tie this thing up.”
And another opportunity to keep this version of the Toronto Raptors on the rails.