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HQ Roundtable: DeMar DeRozan’s return, the second-half of the season, and more

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The HQ panel discusses what will be one of the most emotional nights in Toronto sports history: DeMar DeRozan’s return to Toronto.

Toronto Raptors HQ Roundtable: DeMar DeRozan returns to Toronto and more Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Welcome to a special edition of the HQ Roundtable! I am Sully Akbari — your host for this weekly series. This week’s edition is a special one as we’re discussing former Raptor of nine years DeMar DeRozan, making his long-awaited return to Toronto after being traded for Kawhi Leonard last summer. Joining me to discuss DeRozan and other topics are Jay Rosales and Satbir Singh.

We’ll start things off with a look back at DeRozan followed by questions regarding the second-half of the season.

On DeMar DeRozan and the Raptors:

1) What do you miss most about DeMar DeRozan not being on the team?

Sully Akbari: His fight. DeRozan never backed down against anyone or any challenges he faced when he was here. From his three-point shooting to his ball-handling skills, he made an effort to improve year after year and that’s what I miss most about him.

Then there his fight when he wasn’t playing basketball. DeMar opened up about his battles with depression, which is rare for any athlete in any sport to speak about their mental health. It sent a message to people that often gets carried away, that athletes are human and go through the ups and down everyone else goes through.

All DeMar ever did and continues to do is fight.

Jay Rosales: This is going to sound like a broken record when you read the other two responses, but I miss every single Lowry-DeRozan interaction…

On the court...:

…and off the court:

Satbir Singh: DeRozan was explosive and that’s what I miss about him. I’ll tie this into question two: Kawhi Leonard has been a great scorer at 27 points per game, but he doesn’t have that explosive step DeRozan had.

2) Has there ever been a play/moment/game where you wished DeMar was on the team instead of Kawhi?

Sully: While I would choose Kawhi Leonard over DeMar DeRozan any day of the week, there is still a part of me that misses DeMar in not being with the Raptors. If I were to choose a moment from this season to have him over Kawhi, it’d be when Kyle Lowry recorded his 5,000th career assist against the Phoenix Suns just a little over a month ago. The perfect story to that (hypothetically-speaking) would be Lowry dishing it off to DeRozan for a mid-range bucket or a powerful two-hand jam.

Jay: Short answer, no. What we’re seeing with Kawhi’s presence, is that he’s better than DeMar on both ends of the floor. (It’s something I think we’ll also see with Marc Gasol and Jonas Valanciunas.) Even if you point out late-game situations and how Kawhi has missed some buzzer-beaters, maybe DeMar hits one of those shots, but would he be able to put the Raptors in those positions like Kawhi has?

In the 121-119 Houston loss (Kawhi missed a three at the buzzer and the Raptors lost by two), Kawhi hit a mid-range jumper, followed by a transition three, followed by a steal off James Harden — all within a 30-second span during the final two minutes of an improbable Raptors comeback.

In the Brooklyn loss (Kawhi missing a jumper in a tie game that the Raps would lose in overtime), Kawhi almost single-handedley brought the Raptors to victory. A seven-point deficit in the final minutes turned into a one-point lead after a VanVleet three (Kawhi assist), Kawhi free throw, Kawhi jumper, and Kawhi three. He even added in a steal of D’Angelo Russell in the final minute to keep the game tied. But sure, let’s talk about how DeRozan would have hit the buzzer-beater.

Satbir: I miss the DeRozan baseline dunks, his ability to get by defenders and slam it home. Pascal Siakam has brought that a little bit, but it’s nothing like DeRozan. The video explains better than words ever could:

3) What will the perception from the crowd be during DeMar DeRozan’s return?

Sully: There are two types of Raptor fans: those who were and still are against trading away DeRozan and those who were extremely happy with the team trading DeRozan for Leonard. However, those two types of fans have something in common, that being they miss and/or still love DeRozan.

So, with emotions being at an all-time high, I would say Scotiabank Arena will be the loudest it will ever be when DeRozan is introduced in the starting lineups. The crowd will go absolutely nuts and give him a standing ovation when Raptors PA announcer Herbie Kuhn or In-Arena Host Strizzy calls out his name for the introductory lineups. Then when the tribute video plays, cheers will ring out and tears will run down on the faces of fans, making it one of the most emotional returns of a former player in all of sports.

For the game, the crowd will cheer whenever he makes a shot and I think they may chant “MVP” or chant his name if he gets to the line to shoot free-throws. At the end of the game, I expect the crowd to cheer and give him a standing ovation once again when he is walking towards the tunnel to head to the locker room.

Jay: The crowd will approach Linsanity-type levels of excitement. He will be justifiably lauded — presumably with a cheesy tribute video — and cheered loudly the second he steps on the court. I have two scenarios that I dread occurring in this game: 1) A buzzer-beating win at the hands of DeMar would crush my soul; 2) An overly raucous crowd making Kawhi question whether or not the fans love DeMar more than him. Neither are going to happen — the reverse jinx has been given to the universe.

Satbir: There’s really no other perception he can get but the loudest ovation we have ever seen in Raptors history. DeRozan didn’t quit and ask to be traded, nor did he walk as a free agent. He was traded because the Raptors playoff struggles were consistent, and it held them back — not saying it was all his fault. Nine seasons, four-time All-Star and five straight playoff appearances — the best stretch in franchise history. Things needed to change in Toronto and DeRozan took the hit, but that doesn’t mean his years in Toronto should be seen as anything less than great.

4) Looking ahead to the postseason, what would be the easiest road to the NBA Finals for the Raptors?

Sully: Because we’re talking about what the easiest road would be, this is how I see it panning out. As the first seed, the Raptors have to hope for the Charlotte Hornets to finish as the eight seed because that would be the easiest first-round opponent for them. The Raptors would have to hope for the fifth seed Indiana Pacers to pull off the upset against the fourth seed Boston Celtics because I would rather have the Raptors take on the star-less Pacers in the playoffs than the Celtics with Kyrie Irving, Al Horford and co. Also, I think it’s entirely possible for the Pacers to beat the Celtics, for what it’s worth.

On the other side, the Bucks, being the two seed would breeze through the seven seed Detroit Pistons, and the three seed Philadelphia 76ers finish off the six seed Brooklyn Nets. That’s where things get interesting in the second round. The Raptors would have to hope for the 76ers to pull off the upset against the Bucks, but if that doesn’t happen, then the Raptors’ hardest opponent in what would be the easiest run to the finals would come in the Eastern Conference Finals against the Bucks. In this series, I would take the Raptors in six or seven games. It would be a tough series but I can see the Raptors pulling through.

Jay: With only 22-25 games remaining, I think it’s safe to assume the following: top two seeds will be Milwaukee and Toronto; and seeds 3-5 will be Philadelphia, Boston, and Indiana. I’m not ready to chalk up the Nets for sixth place yet, as their remaining schedule looks tough.

Rounds two and (potentially) three promise to be long series, so give me an easy four-game sweep of Charlotte, please and thank you! Indiana upsets Philadelphia (leading to the free agent departures of Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris), but can’t get through a Toronto team that is laser-focused on a Finals trip. After disposing the Pacers in five games, the Raps host the Bucks, who outlast the Celtics in seven gruelling games. Toronto take control of the series by winning Game 5 at home, before finishing the Bucks off on their court in Game 6.

Satbir: My answer to the final question below does not relate to what I believe here. Below I’m asked how I see the standings being finalized (spoiler: I have Toronto as the number two seed playing the number seven Pistons).

It’d be great to see Dwane Casey against his former team, but I think that’d be a tough matchup for the Raptors. For the first round the Raptors, assuming they’re the number two seed, should want to see the Hornets. However, if the Miami Heat make a run they’d be a fine opening round opponent as well. A Boston or Philadelphia in round two and three would be the perfect road for the Raptors. Any chance they can avoid Milwaukee and even Indiana would be big for Toronto.

Around the NBA:

1) Can LeBron and the Los Angeles Lakers find a second-half groove to avoid missing the playoffs?

Sully: If there is anything that I know about LeBron James, it’s that he comes through when the odds aren’t in his favour. They have a tough schedule ahead and are three games out of the eighth seed but I still believe LeBron will rally his squad to punch their ticket to be in this year’s playoffs.

To further solidify my point, if the Los Angeles Clippers make the playoffs, they’ll lose this year’s first-round pick to the Celtics, so I think the Clippers will tank out of the playoffs in order to keep their pick. The Clippers’ spot will go to the Lakers, where they make a bigger push to the seventh seed as the Spurs fall to the eighth seed.

So, yes. LeBron and the Lakers will find a second-half groove with the help of the Clippers.

Jay: LeBron and the Lakers can find a second-half groove and avoid missing the playoffs. They have a bunch of winnable games and, presumably, a healthy LeBron James to finish off the season. They’d better find their groove quickly, though, because they finish the regular season with a murderer’s row: at OKC, vs. GSW, at LAC, vs. UTA, vs. POR. Ouch!

Satbir: LeBron’s had to carry a lot of teams in his time in the NBA, and none more than this Lakers team. I think this season is tougher than his early days in Cleveland, and that says a lot. Also, with the amount of basketball LeBron has played over the last 15-plus years and now at age 34, he doesn’t have the same will power with all the mileage. His teammates are young, at times immature and not very skilled.

Four of their first six games to start the second half are against the bottom three in the Western Conference, but that itself won’t be enough to get them in. We are heading down a road with no LeBron in the NBA playoffs.

2) Before the unofficial second-half of the season begins tomorrow, how do you predict the playoffs will shape up?

Sully:

Eastern Conference

  1. Toronto Raptors vs. 8. Miami Heat
  2. Milwaukee Bucks vs. 7. Detroit Pistons
  3. Philadelphia 76ers vs. 6. Brooklyn Nets
  4. Boston Celtics vs. 5. Indiana Pacers

Western Conference

  1. Golden State Warriors vs. 8. San Antonio Spurs
  2. Oklahoma City Thunder vs. 7. Los Angeles Lakers
  3. Denver Nuggets vs. 6. Houston Rockets
  4. Portland Trail Blazers. vs. 5. Utah Jazz

Jay:

Eastern Conference

  1. Toronto Raptors vs. 8. Miami Heat
  2. Milwaukee Bucks vs. 7. Charlotte Hornets
  3. Boston Celtics vs. 6. Brooklyn Nets
  4. Philadelphia vs. 5. Indiana Pacers

Western Conference

  1. Golden State Warriors vs. 8. Los Angeles Clippers
  2. Denver Nuggets vs. 7. San Antonio Spurs
  3. Oklahoma City Thunder vs. 6. Portland Trail Blazers
  4. Houston Rockets vs. 5. Utah Jazz

Satbir:

  1. Milwaukee Bucks vs. 8. Miami Heat
  2. Toronto Raptors vs. 7. Detroit Pistons
  3. Indiana Pacers vs. 6. Brooklyn Nets
  4. Philadelphia 76ers vs. 5. Boston Celtics

Western Conference:

  1. Golden State vs. 8. Los Angeles Clippers
  2. Oklahoma City Thunder vs. 7. Utah Jazz
  3. Denver Nuggets vs. 6. San Antonio Spurs
  4. Houston Rockets vs. 5. Portland Trail Blazers

********

That wraps up our special edition of the HQ Roundtable! If you have any questions for us to discuss, let us know in the comments below and we will be sure to include in next week’s edition.