DeMar DeRozan’s improvement efforts come through in monster night

Toronto Raptors' DeMar DeRozan scored a franchise-high 52 points against the Milwaukee Bucks on New Year's Day, this is every basket he earned in the contest.

TORONTO – The Toronto Raptors have spent most of their season trying to wean themselves off their dependency on DeMar DeRozan, with some encouraging results.

But it’s still nice to have him, not to mention his all-star point guard Kyle Lowry. They didn’t earn their exceptionally entertaining 131-127 overtime win over the visiting Milwaukee Bucks alone, but Toronto couldn’t have won without them.

In a rematch of their first-round playoff series from last April, DeRozan exploded for a career-high and franchise-record 52 points on efficient 17-of-29 shooting while Lowry had 26 points on 13 shots while adding six assists. Both players scored essential baskets in the game’s final minutes but it was DeRozan who carried New Year’s Day from start to finish. It was fitting that he set the record at the free-throw line as he’s made his living there. He was 13-of-13 and was deserving of the “M-V-P” chants that began ringing out late in the game. He broke the record of 51 previously held by Terrence Ross and some guy named Vince Carter.

DeRozan’s inspiration was Michael Jordan. Normally that’s basketball blasphemy, but sometimes the sneaker fits. There was a playoff vibe at the ACC, and DeRozan was feeling it:

“Them moments, I wish there was something you could take to get that adrenalin, that feeling, that atmosphere everything we had out there for 48 minutes,” he said. “It’s one of a kind. It always takes me back to when I was a kid watching games.

“It’s crazy because I watched Jordan in the last three minutes of Game 6 versus Utah in the [1998 NBA Finals] earlier today. Just that atmosphere they were playing in. I remember being a kid and wishing to be in moments just like that. So when you come out here and you are in those moments you have to make the best out of it.”

DeRozan did his part, but oh the irony.

So much of the Raptors’ makeover this season in the wake of their playoff struggles was driven by the way playoff opponents – the Bucks included – have been able to throw sand in the Toronto gears by running multiple defenders at DeRozan and Lowry and taking their chances with everyone else beating them.

It’s been a smart tactic.

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Over their past three playoff appearances, their offensive efficiency has dropped by an average of 9.8 points per 100 possessions. In today’s dollars that’s the equivalent of the Raptors morphing – quite literally over night – from the league’s fifth-best offence, which Toronto was heading into its game against Milwaukee at Air Canada Centre Monday, to the Chicago Bulls, or the league’s 29th-ranked attack.

But even in the midst of that post-season floundering last year there were beacons of light.

Specifically? Game 5 of Bucks-Raptors series – which Toronto won in six games – when the Raptors looked like something from the future as they blew out the hard-trapping Bucks by having DeRozan and Lowry take a step back as scorers and allow their teammates to help them out.

The result? Not only a win, but six starters in double figures, 28 assists and 12 made threes on 44 per cent shooting from deep while Lowry and DeRozan combined for 14 assists and just 23 field-goal attempts

If that reads like a dream line from the 2017-18 season to you, well you’d be right.

It was only one game but it was the kind of example the Raptors brain trust looked to when making the decision to diversify their offence to make them more playoff ready this season and beyond.

Raptors head coach Dwane Casey called it a template. DeRozan called it a learning experience.

“It goes back to our playoff series and all of last year and the things that slowed us down and made it difficult on us,” he said in dressing room about the same time Jonas Valanciunas snuck a piece of paper with a hand-written 52 on it, a clever homage to Wilt Chamberlain’s 100-point night in 1962. “You kind of learn from your mistakes and you kind of understand when you get back in those moments how to beat it, how to use it to your advantage.

“It’s all about experience and that’s a perfect example tonight of understanding a team, how they are going to play, how they are coached, how they prepare for you and everything.”

Of course the Raptors being the Raptors and DeRozan being a contrarian at heart, it made sense that in their first meeting since their playoff series DeRozan pretended like it was his job to score every time he touched it again, just like old times, and he nearly did.

But there was enough of the new mixed in with the old to make the case that this wasn’t simply the Raptors reverting to old habits while playing a rival in a “big” game.

But first DeRozan: he came into 2018 hot as he scored 21 points in the first quarter against the Bucks, who chose to single cover him in the early going, which apparently gave the crafty Raptors all-star no choice but to eviscerate them.

“He was playing with a lot of juice, oomph,” said Casey. “You could see the bounce in his step in the first quarter, the force he was playing with coming off pick and rolls, bouncing up and he maintained that throughout the whole game, which was huge for him.”

But this was more than DeMar being DeMar. On display was not only his ability to work pick-and-rolls and draw fouls but evidence that with the addition of his latest toy – an increasingly reliable three-point shot – he was too much for Milwaukee, or anyone, for that matter. It’s hard to run a trap at someone taking a high screen at the top of the circle stepping sideways and dropping bombs, as DeRozan did more than once as he made five of his nine three-point attempts. He’s now shooting 50 per cent from three over his last six games.

And while DeRozan will win an MVP award before he makes an all-defence team, he can lock up his man when he chooses, and it was his handcuffing of the Bucks’ Malcolm Brogdon with three seconds left in the fourth quarter that pushed the game into overtime after a wild final five minutes that saw the game see-saw back and forth after the Bucks came back from down 11 in the third quarter.

The Raptors were up by four with just under five minutes left and then the Bucks were up by four with two minutes left. But DeRozan converted a three-point play and Lowry hit a triple to tie the game before DeRozan hit two more free throws to tie it at 114 after a pair of Eric Bledsoe free throws with 43 seconds left had put the Bucks up by two.

And DeRozan had plenty of help from Lowry, who seemed to take his matchup with Bledsoe – Milwaukee came into the game 15-9 since they acquired him from Phoenix in early November – to heart. There were some mano-a-mano battles on loose balls and some tit-for-tat scoring, but Lowry kept his head, knocking down five threes of his own, and played smartly off DeRozan while Bledsoe finished with a Bucks-high 29.

But in between the fireworks it was some of the little plays that spoke more to where the Raptors have come since their series against Milwaukee last year. DeRozan mixed in a team-high eight assists during his scoring binge, either finding Lowry as a spot-up outlet when the Bucks did begin sending multiple bodies at him after the first quarter or coordinating with bigs Valanciunas and Jakob Poeltl on high pick-and-rolls from the middle of the floor that the Bucks – for all their length defensively – struggled to handle as Toronto shot 49.5 per cent from the floor with 25 assists and 14 threes on 33 attempts.

With the ball in his hands and a chance to win on the second-last possession of regulation, it should be noted that DeRozan strung out the Bucks trap and fired a pass to Serge Ibaka. The shot clock ran out before he could make the next play, but the thought counts.

Add in some promising primary defence on the Bucks’ seven-foot do-everything MVP candidate Giannis Antetokounmpo by rookie OG Anunoby and second-year forward Pascal Siakam – the Bucks star was slowed at least somewhat on his way to 26 points, seven rebounds and seven assists – and you could see the outline of how this version of the Raptors and their much-discussed culture reset might be better positioned to manage the Bucks, or anyone else, in a playoff series now than they were in April or May.

It’s at least fun to think about.

The win pushed the Raptors’ record to 25-10 and their home-court winning streak to 12, tying a franchise record. It improved them to 7-7 against teams with .500 records as they head into a segment of the schedule heavy with playoff-quality opponents.

It left them undefeated in 2018, and most importantly, reasonably optimistic about what lies ahead.

They can thank DeRozan for that, and Lowry. But they had help.

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