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NBA Playoffs 2017: DeMar DeRozan’s Game 3 highlighted the Raptors’ philosophical conundrum

Toronto’s ceiling is probably limited by DeMar DeRozan’s aversion to threes. But it in the age of LeBron, does it really matter?

NBA: Playoffs-Cleveland Cavaliers at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

DeMar DeRozan was a human life-preserver for the Raptors in Game 3 against Cleveland. With Kyle Lowry unable to play on a wobbly ankle, the onus fell on DeRozan to become the team’s primary catalyst — a role he became used to during Lowry’s late-season absence.

For stretches on Friday night, DeRozan was the entirety of the Raptors’ attack. In the face of an overwhelming talent disparity and another one of those games where LeBron James achieves greatness without sweat, DeRozan was almost single-handedly responsible for the Raptors staving off the inevitable Cleveland death knell as long as they did. At long last, he mastered the Cavs’ traps, either turning on the jets to circumnavigate them or bull-rushing through converging defenders on his way to the rim.

It was the kind of bounce back both DeRozan and the Raptors desperately needed in Game 3, and LeBron took notice.

“DeRozan was amazing. He gave everything that he had,” said James post-game. “He was knocking down his mid-range; we’re one of 29 teams that’s trying to keep him off the free throw line, we weren’t able to do that tonight and he was in such a great groove.”

“He was knocking down his mid-range” could be a statement copied from the post-game transcripts of any of DeRozan’s best games. He is, of course, known league-wide as a “bad shot maker.” Thanks to the never-ceasing refinement of his game, he has accomplished about all you can as a shooting guard with limited range in 2017. If he finds his way onto an All-NBA team at season’s end, he'll be indisputably deserving.

Against the high-powered Cavs, though, DeRozan’s adherence to working inside the three-point line has highlighted a fundamental dilemma that the Raptors must grapple with. DeRozan is distance-averse with a burdensome usage rate. Even with Lowry’s self-creating brilliance, DeRozan’s playing style leaves the Raptors at a significant mathematical disadvantage. His two-heavy game soaks up a third of the team’s possessions. As far as his teammates go, threes simply don’t come easily or often enough. When Lowry is out, the task of shooting is left entirely to Toronto’s cast of streaky-at-best tertiary options.

Role players have that distinction for a reason, and Game 3 was the ultimate example of the undependable nature of bit parts. DeRozan dismantled Cleveland’s traps will well-timed passes that often led to open looks from three. Volatility can render even the soundest of processes fruitless, and cripple a team in the small-sample environment of a playoff series; such was the case in Game 3.

“The three ball hurt us,” said Casey after his team combined to shoot 2-of-18 from outside. “I thought we did an excellent job of moving the basketball and finding the right person, “It’s something we’ve done, we’ve knocked down threes all year. For some reason it’s escaping us right now.”

Toronto’s shooters can’t exactly be described as specialists. Patrick Patterson, Serge Ibaka, Cory Joseph and the rest of the supporting cast is fine, but not world-beating. Cleveland, meanwhile, seems to have a monopoly on knockdown complementary shooters. Kyle Korver, for example, changed the flow of Game 3 with a micro-explosion from deep in the late third and early fourth.

“He’s automatic. When he steps on the floor, eyes have to be on him,” said James of Korver’s effect on the Cavs. “His ability to be on the floor it helps us out a lot, all of us, offensively cause he just creates more space.”

Toronto doesn’t have a single shooter even close to the realm Korver occupies.

“It’s tough. Going into the fourth … we couldn’t make no threes,” said DeRozan, who didn’t fire a single shot from deep on Friday. “You see them (the Cavs) knocking down threes, getting to their spots, you know it’s kind of deflating. It’s tough to win a game when you only make two three-pointers.”

It’s also tough to win a game — especially as a healthy underdog — when you only attempt 18 threes. Variance can be the equalizer when you’re over-matched. The Raptors didn’t even give themselves a chance to be beneficiaries of an unseasonably warm night from long range. For everything DeRozan did well in his 37-point outburst on Friday, his limitations have something to do with Toronto’s low-ceiling shot chart.

Self-sufficient three-point shooters are the model for success in today’s NBA. It’s not enough to be able to drain the odd catch-and-shoot three from the corner; the best players create those shots on their own. Look at any team still standing in the playoffs — all of them employ at least one off-the-dribble marksman, the Raptors included.

Pull-up threes just aren’t a part of DeRozan’s repertoire. Even when Lowry is in the lineup, the high usage DeRozan accrues cuts into the pool of Raptors possessions that can potentially end in attempts from outside. DeRozan, as it happens, is a freaking prolific scorer; his efficiency tends to be high when his shot selection dictates it shouldn’t.

Unfortunately for the Raptors, the third quarter of Game 3 illustrated the insurmountability of math. DeRozan scored 15 points on 5-of-9 shooting and 5-of-5 from the line in the frame; it seemed each of his baskets was an arena-rocking counter to one the Cavs had just poured in. He was the entire offense in the quarter, and still the Raptors lost it 30-25. Three points are more than two, evidently.

Those 12 minutes were representative of the question that inherently comes with such a heavy reliance on a player like DeRozan — if your best scorer can’t shoot, how far can you go really in today’s NBA? Is it enough to dot competent shooters on the perimeter, or will an over-reliance on so-so supporting players spell inevitable doom?

Evaluating whether or not DeRozan factors into the long-term plans of the Raptors is lower on the off-season checklist than answering free agency questions or making a decision on Dwane Casey’s future, but if the Raptors’ front office is taking a holistic approach this off-season, the DeRozan question is one they’ll contemplate. Considering the season DeRozan has turned in, it almost feels dirty to raise the possibility of moving on from DeRozan this summer.

That’s the reality of the Cavaliers’ inescapable greatness — it drives you to the deepest and most uncharted depths of self-reflection. Before the Raptors being forced to confront the imperfections of their core, it was the Hawks left questioning their 60-win formula in 2015. Instead of concerns over the merits of twos versus threes, Atlanta was forced to consider how far egalitarianism could carry a team without a singular force to tie it all together.

Ultimately, despite the ways in which he mucks up the Raptors’ on-court calculus, DeRozan is too talented and too important to the sustained competitiveness of the franchise for this series to be his last with the team.

Embracing a future with DeRozan is to accept that the Raptors might have a defined ceiling. Against the best, most modern opponents, DeRozan’s shortcomings might play a role in the undoing of the Raptors. But in the era of LeBron, where his personal floor suppresses the ceiling of every other Eastern Conference team anyway, there’s something to be said for the guaranteed pretty good-ness that comes with DeRozan, even if it means the Raptors may never add up to a championship worthy team.