Raptors’ DeRozan has evolved to confident, team-first leader

DeMar DeRozan matched his career playoff-high with 37 points and the Toronto Raptors beat the Washington Wizards 130-119 to take a 2-0 lead in a playoff series for the first time in franchise history.

Dwane Casey has known DeMar DeRozan for a long time.

And to know him is to have your appreciation for him grow.

In this, Casey is like any other Toronto Raptors fan — albeit one who has seen the all-star guard blossom from a boy to a man first hand, and is in some way responsible for it as his coach for the past seven seasons.

In Toronto’s Game 2 win over the Washington Wizards DeRozan’s full on-court maturation was in vivid display. The 28-year-old All-Star had a solution for every problem the game presented.

He tied a career-high with 37 points but did it on just 23 shots while mixing in four assists and punishing the Wizards for daring him to shoot threes (he hit three), something he wasn’t comfortable doing in the not-so-recent past.

It’s been a theme all season as DeRozan’s transition from a raw, relatively unskilled athletic prospect to a crafty, confident, team-first half-court maestro has been all-but completed.

But that’s only one element that Casey – who celebrated his 61st birthday with the Raptors win which earned them a 2-0 lead in the series with Game 3 slated for Friday in Washington – has come to admire about his franchise shooting guard.

DeRozan’s basketball peaks have coincided with some struggles off the court. His father, Frank DeRozan, is ill and has been in hospital most of the season – his mother Dianne already suffers from Lupus. His young children have moved back to Los Angeles to live with their mother and DeRozan has spoken openly about his own battle with depression. DeRozan has made at least three in-season visits to Los Angeles on Raptors off days to tend to family matters there.

Through it all DeRozan has put together arguably the best season of his nine-year career. While his points per game were down to 23 from a career-high 27 the previous season, DeRozan set a career-high with 5.2 assists even as his number of touches dropped by about 10 per cent.

He’s earned his coach’s on-going respect and admiration.

“I love him. To me, he’s like a son as far as just watching him grow up in the last seven years from a snotty-nosed kid in Compton to the man he is now and taking on the family responsibility he’s taking on and still playing,” said Casey on a conference call with the media. “My hat is off to him from that standpoint because he’s got a lot on his plate right now, probably more than you and I or any of us will ever know.

“From a coaching standpoint and an organization standpoint, he has our support and freedom to go back and forth whenever he can to see his dad.”

DeRozan has managed to take care of his family matters without letting his responsibilities suffer and Casey has said DeRozan’s example has helped galvanize his team in the early stages of what all hope is a lengthy playoff run.

Before the playoffs started Raptors family members contributed their best wishes for the post-season to a video montage that was put together and shown to the players and the coaching staff.

For Casey, one in particular stood out:

“His dad sent a beautiful message … I mean, it brought tears to my eyes, anyway, to let the team know that he was pulling for [us],” said Casey. “And he did that from his hospital bed. DeMar, he’s doing a great job for what he’s going through in his personal life”.

That it has all come together when so many things have been pulling at him away from the floor is a reflection on Casey too and the equity he’s built with DeRozan and Lowry over the years.

While moments like Game 2 where the Raptors set franchise post-season records for points in a quarter, a half and a game or that Lowry and DeRozan have combined for 31 assists so far in the series make it easy forget, the Raptors transition to a more modern, more egalitarian offensive approach wasn’t without its struggles.

After a couple of easy wins at home to start the season Toronto was coming off a bad loss in Portland and were 2-3 on an early-season 12-day, six-game road trip when Casey met with his all-stars before the final game.

“Kyle and DeMar and I had a pow-wow in Utah,” said Casey. “At that time — it was early in the season — just they hadn’t got a feel for it yet, they hadn’t gotten a real understanding of when they were gonna get their shots, when they were gonna get their touches so to speak, and how they could help the team win on the offensive end.

“So we talked about it and I implored ‘em to ‘let’s give it a chance, let’s continue to buy in’ … their leadership, their belief in it, not just going through the motions but believing in what we’re trying to do will help the rest of the team.

“And they did. Their leadership and their buy-in was huge in the fact of letting us change an offensive system that was statistically successful last year. That was something that was huge for those guys.”

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The results have been evident through the two playoff games against the Wizards where 13 different Raptors have seen the floor – 11 of them in both games; ten different players have recorded at least one assist and nine have hit at least one three.

But DeRozan has driven the change in approach as much as any single player.

In Game 1 the Wizards sent two defenders at DeRozan on almost every touch. It’s an approach he’s seen every post-season because it’s worked – either DeRozan would force his offence or he wouldn’t trust his teammates to make plays if he didn’t.

In Game 1 DeRozan didn’t hesitate to get off the ball and Toronto won going away even though he only had six field goals on 17 attempts. His six assists and general recognition of when to move the ball was what mattered more.

In Game 2 the Wizards were more conscious of who DeRozan was moving the ball to, and he made them pay when their attention wandered from him.

“I made a lot of great reads in Game 1, passing the ball and understanding where we can get easy shots,” DeRozan after the Raptors win Tuesday. “I understood Game 2 was going to be different. We all try to put our mark on the game and be aggressive. That led to me passing the ball more a little more [in Game 1]. … it led me to scoring the ball.”

His ability to provide what it needed on any given night earned his teammates’ trust, but his ability to lift them with his scoring isn’t lost either.

“Vintage. He was great,” was Delon Wright’s assessment of DeRozan big night. “When we needed buckets, he was able to score and carry the load.”

But it’s his example off the floor that has impressed Casey just as much and which he hopes will impart lessons on his teammates every bit as valuable as his basketball knowledge.

“[his teammates] understand the personal side of what he’s going through with his dad, but not only his dad, taking over being the patriarch of that family,” said Casey. “Making sure his dad is well taken care of, he’s getting the care that he needs back in L.A. All the players understand it, they know it, they respect it.

“I respect it and appreciate him fighting through it.”

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