Toronto’s comeback win Tuesday night to end the Curse of the Bulls wasn’t the work of one man. P.J. Tucker played textbook defense on Jimmy Butler in crunch time; Patrick Patterson played Serge Ibaka-level defense at the rim; Cory Joseph hit shots when called upon; Fred VanVleet provided a youthful spark. And Rajon Rondo helped piss away the Bulls’ 15-point lead after three quarters with an array of turnovers, defensive gaffes and clanked floaters. It took six men for the Raptors to accomplish something they hadn’t since December 31, 2013.
DeMar DeRozan’s contributions, however, were especially shiny.
Toronto’s three-time All-Star has become reliably prolific this season. In one of the more bizarre and emotionally turbulent games of the NBA season, his 42-point, 7-rebound, 8-assist stat line was the one thing that felt almost normal.
Except even compared the lofty standards DeRozan has set this season, Tuesday’s performance felt a tad more spectacular. This was an all-encompassing, two-way display so excellent that it lifted the Raptors over a team it hadn’t beaten since Dwight Buycks, Landry Fields and Tyler Hansbrough occupied the bench.
What better way to sort through the multitude of game-altering plays DeRozan found himself involved in than with a sure-to-be-universally-agreed-upon ranking. Where to even begin...?
#10 to 8 — DeCross-court Passes
DeRozan has steadily improved his ability to pass out of opposing defenses’ smothering traps in the pick-and-roll. It’s a subtle bit of growth that has helped make him as close to match-up proof as a non-superstar can be in the league.
A trio of passes on Tuesday illustrated the critical next step in DeRozan’s evolution as a playmaker. Cross court passes like this:
...introduce a new layer of danger for opposing defenses to maneuver. Instead of keeping the action on one side of the court and in DeRozan’s control, those passes freed up Carroll and Powell for drives against a shifting Bulls defense with unbalanced defenders closing in on them. Powell and Caroll’s forays to the rim produce varied, sometimes frustrating results. DeRozan’s vision in those three instances gave his wing sidekicks a head start once the ball found their hands.
#7 — DeGame-tying Bucket
Remember the days when Jimmy Butler's fatherly defense was the downfall of DeRozan? DeRozan broke free of that vice-grip with this crunch time and-1.
Sure, he missed the ensuing free throw, and took an ugly contested three at the end of regulation to send it to overtime, but if not for DeRozan going shot-for-shot, stop-for-stop with Butler, the Raptors wouldn't have even flirted with a comeback.
#6 — DeFerring to Teammates Late
Part of the criticism that DeRozan has faced over the years has been the stickiness of his game in crunch time situations. Since Lowry went down, DeRozan has absolutely been guilty of one-track-mindedly hunting for his next heroic bucket at times. That said, DeRozan is among the league’s best high-volume isolation scorers (1.02 points/possession). With the bricks his supporting cast has been firing up of late, sometimes letting him go to work is the optimal strategy for the Raptors’ offense.
He knows that, too, which makes this crunch time deferral under the threat of triple coverage that much more commendable.
There may be some folks out there daydreaming of the day where this is a commonplace late-game decision by DeRozan. But don’t overlook the growth that made this deviation from the plan possible. A past edition of DeMar might have launched up a shot through a thicket of arms or been swallowed by a double team in that situation. Joseph’s dagger was the product of DeRozan’s ever more refined playmaking ability.
#5 — DePrayer
Somehow this was only like the 12th weirdest thing to happen in this game.
#4 — DeRebound
Jonas Valanciunas was tormented by Bulls pick-and-rolls on Tuesday, to the point where he found himself in a familiar spot in the fourth quarter: riding the bench.
DeRozan, because he hadn’t quite done everything to pull the Raptors back from the depths, channelled his benched big man with this critical rebound in the final minute.
With Ibaka ejected and Valanciunas on the bench, the Raptors were at serious risk of losing the battle on the glass in the fourth quarter. Patrick Patterson, Tucker, DeRozan and a pair of point guards is defensively mobile and pliable, but closing out possessions with boards wouldn’t figure to be that unit’s strength.
Because this was a Bulls-Raptors game, that assumption was of course foolish. Toronto out-rebounded Chicago 15-10 in the fourth thanks to the vacuuming skills of Tucker, Patterson and DeRozan.
#3 — DeMoralizing Rondo
It made all the sense in the world that Rajon Rondo, an objectively bad player who can’t shoot, would terrorize the Raptors as a member of the Chicago freaking Bulls. Rondo hit a season high four three-pointers and put the defensive combo of Valanciunas and Joseph into a blender in the pick-and-roll.
Regression is a swift and harsh bitch, and Rondo was hit with a wave of it during a comically poor fourth quarter performance. It was capped by this DeRozan turnaround jumper over a badly overmatched Rondo — a basket that gave the Raptors their first lead of the game nearly 52 minutes in.
Rondo gets serious credit for the Raptors snapping the curse.
#2 — DeSteal
More bad Rondo! After shredding the Raptors with penetrative drives and that dumbfounding three-point accuracy early, Rajon Rondo restored order to the universe, with the help of DeRozan.
This steal — which felt inevitable the moment DeRozan got to his feet on the baseline — ignited an 18-4 Raptors run to close regulation. People will point to the fight between Serge Ibaka and Robin Lopez as the biggest energy-changing moment of the game, but the hustle DeRozan exerted to snatch this steal (and then set up Tucker) was what reinvigorated an ACC crowd resigned to a 12th-straight loss to Chicago.
#1 — DeBlock
Consider this vindication for the Bismack Biyombo block that wasn’t on LeBron James in the playoffs last year.
It’s almost as if DeRozan’s been playing with P.J. Tucker’s gravelly, intimidating voice embedded in his mind. Since the Raptors players meeting during which Tucker said he questions DeRozan’s defense, Toronto’s offense-leaning star has amped up the effort on the less glamorous side of the ball.
DeRozan hasn’t suddenly morphed in to Kawhi Leonard or Paul George. But his give-a-crap meter has experienced a significant uptick in recent games, culminating in that arena-rocking stuff of Joffrey Lauvergne.
There were moments throughout DeRozan’s contract year in 2015-16 where there was hardcore debate over whether or not he would be worth the near-max deal the Raptors eventually gave him.
He’s proven his worth fifty times over this season, and reached the arguable apex of his career while carrying the Raptors through the Lowry-less stretch drive. He’ll now go down in Raptors folklore as the man who lifted the Raptors above the Bulls and snapped one of the most inexplicable hexes in pro sports. That might be worth $139 million on its own.