There will always be a warm spot for DeMar DeRozan in Toronto in large part because the former Raptors star has a warm spot for the city and franchise in his heart.
He can still play with ice in his veins, however.
DeRozan remains the franchise’s all-time leading scorer and the rarest Raptors star of all: the one who was pushed out before he ever wanted to leave.
Monday night wasn’t the first time he’s played at Scotiabank Arena since he was traded in the middle of the night in the summer of 2018, but it’s been a while. The deal brought the Raptors Kawhi Leonard and the 2019 championship, but having DeRozan go the other way – even with his history of play-off shortcomings in tow – was a tough pill.
When he was introduced as a member of the Chicago Bulls for the first time, the Toronto crowd reaction was as you would expect – loud and affectionate, like greeting a beloved family member after a long, forced absence.
Then he reminded them how cold-blooded he can be as he scored 11 of his game-high 26 points in the fourth quarter to settle down the Bulls, hold off the Raptors and leave town with a 111-108 win in the pocket of his OVO sweats.
It made for the ideal homecoming for the former Raptors star. The pandemic meant he wasn’t in Toronto during the 2019-20 season or in 2020-21. He’s on a new team, safely settled with the Bulls, who signed him for $85 million over three years after spending three seasons in San Antonio.
At 32 years old he’s the old head trying to change the fortunes of a franchise that’s been on the slide for while – sort of what he did in Toronto when he arrived as 20-year-old and spent most of the next decade getting better on the floor and becoming a leader off it.
“I try to keep up with them more so than anything,” said DeRozan of his role with a team relying heavily on budding stars Zach Lavine (26) and Lonzo Ball (24) as well as well as 20-year-old Patrick Williams, Chicago’s fourth overall pick (in 2020) from Florida State. “It’s just me using my experience more than anything, just me understanding what it takes to win. I’ve been in the league a long time and seen a lot of things that a lot of these guys haven’t, understanding how to win games and close out games.
"That’s kinda my role and just helping them understand that, especially when we’re in those situations.”
Like Monday night, for example.
DeRozan was hardly dominant but, on a Bulls team with offensive talent nicely distributed across their roster, he doesn’t have to be – until they need him.
Chicago was in control most of the game – they led by 20 early in the third quarter and 15 early in the fourth, feasting on a steady diet of Raptors turnovers, ultimately turning 21 of them into 27 points — the type of transition scoring that is supposed to be Toronto’s bread-and-butter.
The Bulls were leading by 11 with 7:46 to play before a quick 9-0 Raptors spurt cut the Bulls' lead to two with 4:49 to play. But it was DeRozan who took the temperature down notch for a new-look Bulls team that is figuring out how to close.
Immediately after being subbed back in the game he went to work on the perimeter until he got long-armed Raptors rookie Scottie Barnes switched on to him. DeRozan took him to the right elbow, rose up and stopped the Raptors' run. Next possession, he worked OG Anunoby baseline and drained a fadeaway over his long fingers. With a little breathing room, the Bulls ran a nice two-man game with Nikola Vucevic and Zach Lavine until Lavine nailed a three to put Chicago up 10 with 2:45 to play.
But that was barely enough as the Bulls made four suspect turnovers in the final five minutes to keep the Raptors breathing.
As well, Fred VanVleet wouldn’t let the Raptors settle against the Bulls and his old mentor.
He set up a dunk for Precious Achuiwa after a steal, got to the line and made a pair after the Raptors forced another turnover and the pulled the Raptors within four before DeRozan backed down Gary Trent Jr. for another calming mid-range jumper. DeRozan then essentially iced the game with 24 seconds left when he drew a foul off an in-bounds play and made both free throws.
The Bulls other than DeRozan had their issues, however, underscoring his value.
Leading by four with 16 seconds left Lonzo Ball threw away an in-bounds pass, allowing Barnes to take it the other way for a dunk to cut Chicago’s lead to two with 13 seconds to go. Vucevic then missed a free throw that would have put Chicago buck up four. That set up a last-second game-tying triple by VanVleet but he couldn’t get to fall, pulling his jersey up after the buzzer in frustration.
DeRozan’s play down the stretch was vintage, the kind of close out he provided countless times in a Raptors uniform and it was the difference for the Bulls.
“Yeah, he bailed them out because I thought we turned the water off on the other guys,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse. “He came in that last run in the fourth and pretty much made all their buckets. I don’t remember any other scorers. I’m sure there were some, maybe, maybe not. I don’t know if there was or not. But he made some tough ones, he made some tough ones, and give him credit, he can do that.”
All in a night’s work, said DeRozan. "Just trying to do my job, especially with my experience, understanding those moments,” he said. “I understand what needs to be done. You know we got kind of stagnant and couldn’t score, those guys went on a run. It’s always my job, especially late games, to close out games, understanding what needs to be done and to getting to my spots and try to make big shots.
“It’s something I’m not shy [about] I know those moments and understand the magnitude of them.”
It’s a quality the Raptors hope that some of their young players can develop – VanVleet certainly has the poise, while Siakam and Anunoby have the talent. Barnes is young, but he’s showing signs.
VanVleet is doing his best. He finished with 15 points – eight in the final 2:14 -- and a career-high 17 assists, but also turned the ball over a career-high eight times. Siakam will help when he gets back in the lineup.
Time flies. Even DeRozan can’t believe how quickly things have changed. When he was last a Raptor the likes of VanVleet and Siakam were wide-eyed rookies youngsters, trying to find their way on a deep roster that was trying to turn from contender to champions, with Kyle Lowry and DeRozan leading the way.
“When they came in they were our little babies. They seen us have success, they seen us struggle. They seen everything at a young age before they even understood what their career was going to pan out to be,” said DeRozan.
Family Ties pic.twitter.com/g9nY1llMMn
— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) October 26, 2021
VanVleet has known mainly only winning as a Raptor, but the club is in a growth stage now, and the challenges are different.
“The conversations I have with Fred now, [losing] is a new dynamic in your career that you have to figure out, it’s tough,” said DeRozan, who helped the Bulls to a 4-0 start with 26 points and six assists.
“But every great player goes through it. There’s not too many guys that just have a polished career. It’s another obstacle you can learn from and build on and turn you into a much better player than you even knew you had in you. You just need to prepare for it and he’s up to the challenge, for sure.”
As they fell to 1-3 on the season and 0-3 at home, it’s clear the Raptors are going to have some challenges.
Another promising outing from Barnes – he finished with 13 points and four rebounds as he recorded his fourth consecutive game scoring in double figures – wasn’t enough to lift them, and some welcome offence from Trent Jr. (18 points on 15 shots) wasn’t enough either.
They have a lot to learn and vets like DeRozan are still teaching the Raptors. His game has evolved even since he left Toronto, as he’s rounded out his ability to score with some of the slickest playing making in the league – he’s averaged 6.2 assists a game with the Spurs over three seasons. But he can still create points when he chooses, as he showed in the guts of the game.
Monday night won’t go down as one of his great moments – nothing like the first-half triple double he put on the Raptors in his first game against them after the trade.
But it’s probably not a stretch to suggest that DeRozan’s unhurried approach (in the best sense) is rubbing off on his new teammates.
“I mean, he's just such a calm presence to have on the court, off the court, in the locker room, and obviously we know what he brings to the table offensively. He's always under control -- unless he's having a meltdown with the referees,” said VanVleet, joking but not. “But his game never gets sped up.
"He can get a shot whenever he wants and he's really grown as a facilitator in the last couple of years. So, he's one of the best in the league at, you know, being one of those primary guys and being able to create shots for himself and for others.”
Being that steady hand in Toronto now falls to VanVleet and – when he returns from shoulder surgery – Siakam. It’s going to be a tall order on a young team that is trying to find its place. Hopefully they learned their lessons from DeRozan well. He gave them another one Monday night.