After two days of talking, thinking about and replaying a Game 1 loss to the Brooklyn Nets, the Toronto Raptors were ready to tie the series on Tuesday night.
With DeMar DeRozan taking a page out of Paul Pierce’s crunch-time playbook, the Raptors held off the Nets 100-95. Toronto will head to Brooklyn for Games 3 and 4 with the series even.
“We weren’t going down 0-2,” Amir Johnson said. “We were the desperate team. We had to play desperate. There was no way we were going to lose that game. It was a must-win for us.”
After struggling in Game 1, DeRozan was huge when it counted for Toronto. Finishing with a game-high 30 points, he weathered the storm and pieced together a brilliant fourth quarter.
“I’m just happy for him,” Kyle Lowry said. “A lot of people were saying he had a bad game. But everyone has a bad game once in a while. And for us, he’s had a bad game, I’ve had a bad game, but the fact that he’s an All-Star and he knows how to get his thing done, tonight just showed what he can do. And he just did an unbelievable job tonight of attacking, being aggressive and he got his rhythm going. Once he gets his rhythm going, he’s a hard guard.”
Throughout the first half of Game 2, DeRozan looked much calmer than he had in his playoff debut. He had 11 points. He looked confident rather than rushed. The jitters he’d spent the previous 48 hours atoning for seemed to be gone.
When the third quarter hit, DeRozan was served another helping of postseason difficulty. Shooting 4-for-9 in the first half, DeRozan went cold in the third, connecting on 1-for-7 attempts. After picking up his fifth foul with more than seven minutes remaining in the fourth quarter, he was sent to the sideline. He wasn’t happy about it.
Pleading with his coach to no avail, DeRozan sat on the bench and wore his frustration all over his face. With Lowry taking care of business until he could return, the game was tied when DeRozan returned with less than four minutes remaining. He made the most of it.
Drilling back-to-back jumpers in a 35-second span, DeRozan gave the Raptors a four-point lead. When he turned the ball over on a drive to the basket with less than a minute remaining and the lead down to two, rather than losing his composure, he remained poised.
DeRozan’s fourth quarter ended up looking like this: 17 points on 4-for-5 field goals, 9-for-11 from the free throw line, and a perfect 6-for-6 from the stripe in the final 20 seconds in 8:35 minutes played.
For the first time in his five-year career, DeRozan was the closer in a postseason game. He was who his team needed him to be.
“It’s everything you dream about,” DeRozan said. “Especially when you become a professional athlete, to be at that highest level and have the trust from your coaching staff and your teammates to have the ball in your hand and win a game for ‘em. That’s big, and I appreciate all 14 guys in that locker room and the coaching staff to have that trust in me to take those shots in the fourth quarter.”
DeRozan was joined by Johnson at the podium to speak to reporters. It was easy to see that the first playoff win as Toronto Raptors meant a lot to the longest-tenured players on the roster.
“Me and DeMar, we’ve been though the ups and downs of this team,” Johnson said. “We’ve been through 80-some players and different coaches. This year we broke so many records… I feel like we have a duty to prove that we are a great team. It really means a lot, to be here for five years, we finally get to this stage.”
A first-time All-Star this year, DeRozan has said the same thing after each of the previous four seasons that team had failed to make the postseason. He declared his loyalty to the team that saw something in him as a one-and-done 19 year-old out of USC. He wanted to give the city what it deserved. He promised he would work all summer to get them back into the postseason.
After leading his team to victory in the biggest game his career has known thus far, DeRozan reminded everyone staring back at him all that has changed since he and Johnson came to the Raptors in 2009.
“We’ve been here when people just thought you could come to Toronto to get a win,” DeRozan said. “We’ve been through all that, the frustrating seasons, and we want everybody to know when you play against the Toronto Raptors you’re going to have to fight. You’re going to have to bring your game. That’s the passion every single guy on this team has, this organization has. For us to go through the struggles and start from the bottom and work our way up and still don’t get the respect that we deserve, we understand we’ve still got a long way to go.”
Next up on their journey, two games in Brooklyn.