TORONTO — On Monday morning, DeMar DeRozan sat down to watch footage of Michael Jordan’s magnificent final few minutes of the Chicago Bulls’ thrilling Game 6 win over Utah in the 1998 NBA Finals.
On Monday evening, DeRozan made some history of his own.
DeRozan scored a career-high and franchise-record 52 points and the Toronto Raptors opened the new year with a thrilling 131-127 victory over the Milwaukee Bucks in overtime, their 12th win in a row at the Air Canada Centre.
“I remember being a kid and wishing to be in moments just like that,” DeRozan said of Jordan’s famous performance. “So when you come out here and you are in those moments, you have to make the best out of it.”
The 28-year-old broke the previous franchise high of 51 points shared by Vince Carter (Feb. 27, 2000 versus Phoenix) and Terrence Ross (Jan. 25, 2014 vs. the Los Angeles Clippers).
“Tonight, DeMar DeRozan played like a superstar,” said Raptors coach Dwane Casey.
Kyle Lowry added 26 points, while Fred VanVleet and Serge Ibaka finished with 11 apiece for Toronto (25-10).
Eric Bledsoe had 29 points to top the Bucks (19-16), while Giannis Antetokounmpo added 26.
DeRozan had five three-pointers on the night, one shy of his career high, and his 21 first-quarter points were one short of the franchise record for a quarter, set by Lowry on Dec. 2, 2015.
In the post-game locker-room, teammate Jonas Valanciunas held a white piece of paper with “52” written on it behind DeRozan during interviews.
“You really can’t tell because you don’t pay attention to (points scored). You look up, you’re going to halftime, you may glance at (scoring) and say ‘Damn, I got X amount of points,”‘ DeRozan said. “You just feed off of that and understand it’s nothing but aggressiveness and going out there and wanting to win.”
If DeRozan wasn’t paying attention to his points, Casey could see something special right from the opening tipoff.
“He was playing with a lot of juice, oomph,” Casey said. “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.”
In their first meeting since the Raptors dispatched Milwaukee in six games in the opening round of last season’s playoffs, Toronto had an early nine-point lead but didn’t enjoy it long in a game that saw 12 lead changes.
The Raptors took a narrow 88-84 advantage into the fourth quarter, but the Bucks fought hard down the stretch, and with 2:07 to play took a 110-106 lead after a three-pointer from Matthew Dellavedova and a pair of Bledsoe free throws. DeRozan converted a three-point play, and Lowry drilled a three right in front of the Bucks bench to tie the game with 57 seconds to play.
The Raptors turned the ball over on a shot clock violation with 3.2 seconds to play, then with the capacity crowd of 19,800 on its collective feet, DeRozan, who was also excellent on the defensive end, was on Bledsoe like a blanket, sending the game into extra time tied at 114-114.
A Bledsoe three gave the Bucks an early three-point lead in overtime, but it was almost all Raptors the rest of the way, and when Ibaka scored with 57 seconds left, it gave Toronto a seven-point lead. Milwaukee would pull within two, but DeRozan made two free throws to seal the victory in the dying seconds.
DeRozan, who 17-for-29 on the night, and hit all 13 of his free throws, said he wasn’t thinking about breaking records.
“No, I just wanted to win. Honestly,” he said. “I just kept looking at the score trying to figure out how many possessions we had left, what we had to do, when we needed a stop, when we needed a bucket, when we needed something. That’s all I was caring about.”
Dozens of blue and white Greek flags dotted the crowd in celebration of Greek Heritage Night and Antetokounmpo, who grew up in Athens.
DeRozan and the Raptors got off to a strong start, taking an early nine-point lead. But it didn’t last long, and a cutting dunk by Antetokounmpo with 1.8 seconds left in the first quarter cut Toronto’s advantage to 35-30 going into the second.
The lead changed hands eight times in the second quarter, and with 2.4 seconds left, DeRozan scored on a running pull-up three-pointer, and the Raptors took a 60-54 lead into the halftime break.
DeRozan’s three early in the third quarter gave Toronto an 11-point lead, but an Antetokounmpo jumper capped an 11-1 run that pulled the Bucks to within a point with five minutes left in the third.
The Raptors are in Chicago on Wednesday, Milwaukee on Friday, and Brooklyn next Monday, then face a tough home stretch against visiting Miami, Cleveland, and Golden State.