Raptors’ DeRozan: ‘As long as we win, that’s all I care about’

Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) is congratulated by fans as he leaves the court after his team beat the Dallas Mavericks 122-115 in overtime during NBA basketball action in Toronto on Friday March 16, 2018. (Chris Young/CP)

TORONTO — Do you remember the last time DeMar DeRozan scored 30 points in a game?

It was nearly a month ago, on March 7, when the 28-year-old went off for 42 against the Pistons in Detroit. He’s played 10 games since and is averaging just 19.2 points per night. In fact, he’s surpassed 30 points in a game only 15 times this season. He did it on 32 occasions, including six times in his final 11 games as he ramped up for the playoffs just a year ago.

But that was then and this is now. We all know the Raptors play differently today — passing more, running a deeper rotation, utilizing secondary scoring. That’s allowed DeRozan to take a backseat to his teammates many nights this season. But don’t forget who DeRozan is. This is still a player who can carry a team offensively. He just hasn’t had to as much.

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“My scoring is in case of emergency,” DeRozan said Friday after the Raptors squeezed one final practice in before Saturday’s game in Boston against the Celtics. “I’m out there just feeling out the game, letting things come easy, facilitating, finding guys, just trying to make my teammates better. At the end of the day, I know I can score whenever I need to score. It always comes in case of emergency.”

Being able to break that glass and activate DeRozan in dire situations is a nice luxury for the Raptors to have, particularly as they enter a time of the season when games become much more meaningful. The playoffs begin two weeks Saturday, and it will be no surprise if the Raptors need at least one, if not many, vintage DeRozan performances in the coming weeks.

This season has been an exceptionally demanding one off the court for DeRozan, who has been making cross-continent trips during lapses in his team’s schedule to spend time with his father, Frank, who has been battling health issues in California. The most recent voyage came this week, after the Raptors beat the Denver Nuggets on Tuesday night. DeRozan was back with the team by Friday, participating in practice before the Raptors hit the road.

It’s a lot. Especially considering DeRozan’s sat out only one game this season. But not being the focal point of his team’s offence most nights has helped.

“It’s taxing scoring 30 points a night. It is. I know I did it last year and it seemed easy or whatever. But it takes a toll — mentally, physically, everything,” he said. “So, for me, I have a great time passing the ball, seeing guys knock down shots. And being able to take less shots and be able to win by 10-plus. As long as we win, that’s all I care about.”

DeRozan’s usage rate last season was 34.3 per cent, but this year it’s down to 29.8 as the Raptors have relied on a more collaborative offensive approach. He’s averaging four fewer field goals attempts per 100 possessions, and two fewer free throws. A year ago, DeRozan took 33.7 per cent of Toronto’s attempts from the field. This year, it’s 27.6 per cent.

But then you look at what’s gone up. DeRozan’s dishing out two more assists per 100 possessions than he did last season, and attempting three more three-pointers. His offensive rating is up two points and his defensive rating is steady. He’s contributing just as much as he always has, if not more — he’s just doing it differently.

And he’s playing a minute and a half less per night, along with Kyle Lowry who is playing five fewer minutes than he did last season. Despite all the travel to visit his father, DeRozan says he feels much fresher today than he did at this time last season. He’s excited to see how that translates into the playoffs.

“I think it’s going to make a big difference,” he said. “Even if it’s something psychological, knowing that we didn’t play that many minutes. So, if it’s called for us to go out there and play big minutes at a high level, we’re going to be able to do it and still feel fresh and do it the next night, and the next night if need be.”

Those nights may come soon. The Raptors are beginning a crucial three-game stretch of their season, starting in Boston against the second-place Celtics Saturday, before making a stop in Cleveland Tuesday to take on the third-place Cavaliers, and returning to Toronto the next night to host the Celtics. Barring a dramatic change of course in the playoffs, one of these three teams will likely represent the Eastern Conference in the NBA Finals.

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Toronto’s goal is to finish first in the conference and ensure home court advantage for the first three rounds. Win their next three, and the Raptors will do that. Even winning only two would all but lock it up. Not that Raptors head coach Dwane Casey wants to put any more pressure on his group.

“They’re three good teams, I’ll say that,” Casey said. “They don’t make or break your season. They’re not going to knock us out of the playoffs or anything. We still have the playoffs to come. Our goal is to win the conference, get home court. But, again, we’re not going to lose our minds if we don’t. … I’m not going to put the whole weight of the world and our season on three games.”

That’s certainly the best way to look at it. And if the Raptors lose all three games, the sky won’t fall. But there’s a psychological aspect at play as well. You want to be playing your best basketball as you go into the playoffs. You want to end the season on the right note, and go into the first round on a run.

“It definitely carries over from the standpoint of confidence, playing well,” DeRozan said. “It makes it a lot easier, having that feeling, having that comfort going into game one understanding you’ve been playing great.”

It’s blissfully simple. You play the games to win. And in the midst of a challenging season off the court, and a less taxing one on it, DeRozan’s ready to do whatever it takes to make that happen.

“Nobody wants to come second,” DeRozan said. “Your goal is to finish at the top, no matter what it is that you’re doing. I play my kids in video games and I want to win. I don’t care if they’re four-years-old. I want to win.”

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