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NBA Playoffs: This is the best version of DeMar DeRozan

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DeRozan has been knocked for playoff performances, but his selflessness is fueling the Raptors’ offense.

Milwaukee Bucks v Toronto Raptors - Game Five Photo by Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images

Consider, through gritted teeth if you have to, Kobe Bryant’s banal concept of “musecage.” All this business of needing to embrace your light and dark side in order to achieve greatness. A puppet can explain it to you if you need help.

The self-invention of musecage is a way for Kobe’s legend to live on. It dictates that, in order to respond to the hurdles of a basketball game, you must summon motivation and score in volume. This is what Bryant will be remembered for, anyway. He was a scorer with tunnel vision, a professional peach basket filler — one who often had limited patience for teammates.

Remove Bryant from his element of scoring and he was uncomfortable. In 2006, he was pushed so hard to defer to his teammates that he masochistically went half of a Game 7 against Phoenix without shooting. Four years later, in the biggest game of his career, the Celtics’ defense choked out his opportunities and he went 6-for-24 in Game 7 of the Finals. Pau Gasol and Ron Artest made the plays to give him his fifth championship. Those spotlight-stealing jerks.

Kobe’s musecage never allowed for much passing, and the players who emulate him get caught with the same flaw. Last spring, we saw this flaw in DeMar DeRozan — the closest stylistic heir to Bryant in today’s NBA.

DeRozan’s offensive game was one note against Indiana, Miami, and Cleveland. He averaged just 20.9 points per game on 39.4 percent in the post-season, brought down by a 31.9 percent first round guarded by Paul George. DeRozan, as he had in years past, allowed a defender’s length to remove him from his comfy spots — the top of the key jumper, the creative tosses in the paint. He was painful at times to watch, and the performance brought into question his future with the team.

Thankfully, the Raptors moved forward. A franchise-best finish in the Eastern Conference Finals (in six games!) is enough to make you forget some stuff, and the Raptors felt good about their finish — no matter how ugly it looked getting there.

Then, the most shocking development of all. DeRozan got a new contract, furthered his game, and actually became a joy to watch on the offensive end.

This season has been full of firsts. He’s improved his handle, able to face up and meander his way into the shots he wants. He’s stronger, showing off drop steps and the ability to rise through contact and finish jump shots. Most notably — this is what the Raptors need from him, and are getting in spades in this first round series against the Milwaukee Bucks — he’s improved his offensive awareness. He picks up on what defenses are showing, and at the best of times, he’s a willing and unselfish passer.

This is the best version of DeMar DeRozan, and it’s translating from regular season to playoffs. In Monday’s Game 5, we saw the full repertoire of DeRozan’s awareness. His line doesn’t jump out at you — 18 points, six assists, and three rebounds — but it belies how he exposed Bucks coach Jason Kidd’s increasingly tired defensive strategy.

“I knew tonight, they were gonna try to come out, get the ball out of my hands early. Blitz me, double team me when I caught the ball,” said DeRozan after Game 5. “It’s just me being conscious of that and taking advantage of it early.”

Kidd has made it a point of emphasis to trap DeRozan in the pick and roll. In response, the Raptors are isolating more (as broken down in this excellent Sean Woodley piece) and DeRozan is making great early passes, creating shots or 4-on-3 opportunities for his team.

In Game 5, three out of every four DeRozan passes were like that one. They went to release valve players in the starting lineup — 18 percent to DeMarre Carroll (the de facto power forward), 18 percent to Serge Ibaka, and 37 percent to hero of the moment Norman Powell.

It’s no coincidence that Powell has put in his two best games of the season while playing next to DeRozan. DeMar assisted on three of Powell’s eight made shots in Game 5, including this thunderous dunk. DeRozan recognizes that Matthew Dellavedova is cheating toward him in the Bucks’ 2-3 zone defense, and makes a nice bounce pass to Powell sliding into the corner. Norm does the rest.

Here, he patiently waits for one trap to dissipate before dribbling to the top of the key. When doubled, he finds an open Carroll.

It’s not just the direct helpers, either. When DeRozan recognizes traps and help defense properly, he can nab hockey assists by making skip passes to the weak side. This is another skill he’s honed in the 2016-17 season.

Here, with four black jerseys around him, he finds an open Powell — who has jolted the Raptors as a third downhill creator in the starting lineup.

When teams like the Bucks load up on DeRozan, it also makes life easier for Kyle Lowry. These two obviously work best in tandem, and the push-pull of providing each other opportunities continues to be the backbone of the Raptors’ success. Lowry had a glitzier line than DeRozan in Game 5, with 16 points and ten assists being the veneer on an offensive rating of 134.6 and a true shooting percentage of 68.7 percent. While none of his shots were directly set up by DeRozan in Game 5, Lowry has more space when teams try to take away the Compton kid.

As a team, the Raptors go as Lowry and DeRozan do, but Lowry has always been the steadier of the pairing. He’s more able defensively and makes more hustle plays. This does more to impact the team, and the numbers bear that out. Save the rare outlier like Game 1, you can rely on Lowry to bring his intangibles through offensive droughts. With DeRozan, we’re programmed to be more skeptical.

There were a lot of years in Toronto where DeRozan was a mid-range chucker. He messed around in the musecage too often — narrowing his vision and trying to take over games by himself. Now, the script is flipped. When DeRozan starts assisting, it’s like a contagion for the Raptors.

Since Monday, everyone has been talking about the team’s 28 assists on 41 made baskets. Rightfully so, it’s a percentage that’s truly foreign to the iso-loving Raptors. Even without the stat line to back it up, a lot of credit for this unselfishness deserves to go to DeRozan. He’s giving up his own opportunities to help the team win, creating the best version of himself for Toronto’s success.

“I try to make the right play every time down,” said DeRozan. “It’s on me not to force anything but just to make the right play. I don’t care if my teammates miss 50 shots in a row, I’m going to make the same exact play like they made ten in a row.”

That’s the sign of a leader — someone who’s “got us” — and is ready to get his team on a weekend flight to Cleveland.