It’s often said that teams take on the character of their best player. In the Raptors case, while Kyle Lowry is definitely the most important, DeMar DeRozan’s first five games have clearly been the best. He’s leading the league in scoring with 35.8 points per game after all. Of course, it’s also often said that DeRozan can’t shoot threes. It’s fitting then that the Raptors, god love them, can’t seem to hit them either right now. No matter: the Raptors are now 4-1 after a 96-87 win over the Miami Heat.
The Raptors as a team managed to shoot 44 percent from the field, compared to the Heat’s paltry 38.6 percent. From three however, they were a woeful 6-for-25 — with DeRozan gamely trying two more and missing both. He’s still at one made three for the season. His backcourt running mate Lowry dropped in 2-for-8 from deep (4-for-15 overall) for a slight 13 points. But Lowry’s presence was felt in other ways — three steals, five assists, eight rebounds (including four on the offensive end), and one charge taken on seven foot behemoth Hassan Whiteside.
As with the Wednesday’s game against Washington, the Raptors started slow, with the starters (particularly Jonas Valanciunas and DeMarre Carroll) getting out worked on both ends. It was actually the Raptors bench, led by — ready for this? — Terrence Ross, that got Toronto back into the game. Ross had 20 points on the night on 8-for-15 shooting (and 3-for-7 from deep). He chipped in four rebounds and a steal, and just for the hell of it, one ridiculous highlight:
Much of the Raptors’ good fortune in the early season has come to be defined by the up and down natures of the team’s complementary pieces. Some games, as was the case tonight and Wednesday, Ross is way, way up — assertive on offense, alert on defense. Others, he can disappear into muted indifference. So it goes with Valanciunas, whose battle with Whiteside was underwhelming. The Heat strongman had 21 points, 16 rebounds, two steals and a block (which was actually more of a soul-swallowing on poor Pascal Siakam). For his part, JV finished with five points (on 1-for-2 from the field; for real), 11 rebounds, and two blocks. It could have been worse, I suppose.
Much like Lowry, Patterson has found a way to be useful even when his shot’s not falling. (Though it would be exceedingly useful for Patterson to shoot better than zero percent from 3, as he did tonight.) He was 2-for-8 from the field, but also had seven rebounds and was tasked with guarding what felt like half the Heat team — but mainly Justise Winslow and a resplendent, resurgent James Johnson. Not to be forgotten: the rookies! Siakam had eight points, including a couple of great fast break runs. Meanwhile, Jakob Poeltl put one more nail in the coffin of the idea of Lucas Nogueira getting playing time this season after another solid outing. The big Austrian had just four points, but was sound on defense, showing up in the right spots nearly every time.
The funny twist here comes with how the Raptors and Dwane Casey are choosing to use Norman Powell in all of this. Casey can now afford to insert Powell into the lineup to buttress whichever of his rotation wings is struggling on the night. Against Washington it was the guards having to deal with John Wall, tonight it was the speed and size of the Heat wings. With Cory Joseph ineffective in 12 minutes and DeMarre Carroll looking like a husk of himself, Powell came in for 14 minutes, chipped in six points, and acquitted himself quite well on defense. It’s a nice luxury the Raptors have on their hands.
But, once again, we arrive back at DeRozan. He’s now apparently the first player since Michael Jordan in 1986 to open the season scoring 30 or more in five straight games. It’s lofty freaking company, folks. And while there’s an asinine debate raging on Twitter right now (hi Matt Moore!) about whether it’s sustainable — which, I mean, of course not — we’re in the realm of something special here. This is rare in Raptorland, the idea of a special thing happening, particularly by a star player who has just recommitted to the team. Yes, DeRozan shot above 50 percent (14-for-26 this time) on a bevy of midrange attempts, and whirling takes at the rim, and he will probably wear himself out at some point and slow down. But so what? He did it. It’s happening right now.
If there’s a way to summarize what this means for the Raptors and by extension, the team’s fans, I’ll leave it to coach Casey: “He’s mine. He’s ours. He belongs to the Raptors.”
And the Raptors, fittingly, belong to him.