After putting up nearly 23 points per game last season and being selected to the All-Star Game for the first time ever, Toronto Raptors shooting guard DeMar DeRozan has taken a bit of a step back this year, thanks in part to an injury that kept him out for a about a month and a half earlier in the season.
But there have been other explanations as well. One thing that’s different is that some would be inclined to say DeRozan doesn’t have to be the go-to guy in Toronto anymore. One obvious reason for that is the emergence of point guard and sidekick Kyle Lowry as an All-Star. Lowry has been praised during his time as a member of the Raptors for his undeniable leadership role on the team, and for playing the part of the heart and soul guy while also increasing his production stats wise.
As much as Lowry has been there, it’s not just him who has stepped up. This season saw the arrival of shooting guard and sixth man Lou Williams. The veteran scorer was acquired by the team in a trade with the Atlanta Hawks in the offseason. The trade worked out well for both teams as the Hawks sit perched up in the first spot in the Eastern Conference and the Raptors now have one of the game’s most prolific scorers off the bench, and the guy who gets counted on night in and night out to create his own shot and more importantly, take the last shot when necessary.
That habit of giving Williams the ball with the clock winding down has worked out well this season, particularly in the first half when it looked like the Raptors would challenge for Eastern Conference supremacy, but the second half of the season has proved to be a different story. The Raptors have seen multiple losing streaks, lost many big leads, seen some fourth-quarter collapses and even a loss at the hands of the last-place New York Knicks, who currently boast a roster of players that seems to be better suited for the NBDL rather than the NBA. All of these experiences have no doubt tested and challenged the team to really turn up the intensity as the league hits the stretch drive to the playoffs, but it also has seen the Raptors become in danger of falling to the No. 4 seed in the East.
That’s a position the team doesn’t want to be in because it likely means a first-round matchup with the Washington Wizards, while even a third-place finish would instead draw the Milwaukee Bucks or one of the other under-.500 East playoff teams. Of course the first two spots in the conference are already taken. The Hawks are 11 games in front of the Raptors and the Cleveland Cavaliers have been unstoppable since some mid-season moves saw the team acquire the likes of Timofey Mozgov from the Denver Nuggets as well as J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert from the New York Knicks.
It’s the reality of that altered landscape in the East that made the Raptors’ 99-96 win over James Harden and the Houston Rockets on Monday all the more important (especially with Lowry out with a back injury), and it’s what made DeRozan’s performance in that game a showing of who the team’s leader needs to be with seven games remaining in the regular season. Not only did DeRozan finish with a career-high 42 points in the contest, he drained the final high-arching shot over Harden to seal the win.
More than just scoring a lot of points and taking that last shot, the team’s 2014 All-Star demonstrated the type of tight defense and resolve to go to the basket with the ball in his hands that the team is going to need in order to advance beyond the first round of the playoffs. It was probably the first time all year long that Raptors fans have seen their star truly take over a game, the way he did so many times last season.
If the Raptors are going to have any playoff success, DeRozan is going to have to have more superstar-like performances like he did on Monday. Look for him to get the ball more and more now that the team’s losing ways and his early-season groin injury appear to be long gone. The team’s hopes of advancing in the playoffs depends on it.