Following another awful shooting night in the Miami Heat's Game 4 win over his Toronto Raptors, DeMar DeRozan made a promise. He had struggled all postseason to find the bottom of the net, first due to the defense of Indiana Pacers lockdown artist Paul George, and now due to a thumb injury to his right hand suffered on the final play of Game 1 of the conference semis. But he refused to use the impaired digit as an excuse for his poor play, and vowed to turn things around come Wednesday's Game 5.
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"I know for sure I'm not going to shoot like I did tonight next game," he said. "I know that for a fact. It's just something I'mma deal with, and I'mma push through it."
The All-Star shooting guard kept his word.
DeRozan tied a postseason high with 34 points on 11-for-22 shooting to lead the Raptors to a 99-91 win at Air Canada Centre that gives Toronto a 3-2 lead in this best-of-seven series. They'll now head back to Miami to try to close out the Heat in Game 6 on Friday.
DeRozan persevered despite reinjuring the thumb while reaching in to try to disrupt a pass early in the fourth quarter. He headed back to the locker room for treatment before returning four minutes later and hitting eight straight free throws down the stretch.
"Just jammed my thumb a little bit," he said on the court during a postgame interview with TNT. "I'll be all right."
He sang a slightly different tune a bit later, on the podium.
"It just felt like a blowtorch on my hand," he said. "That's all."
DeRozan got plenty of help in putting the Heat on the brink of elimination from All-Star backcourt partner Kyle Lowry, who has also had a lot of trouble consistently knocking down shots this postseason, but who also shined when the Raptors needed him most on Wednesday.
Lowry wasn't quite as hot as he was in the second half of Game 3, but his energy, playmaking, defensive effort, and all-court excellence was back on full display as he finished with 25 points on 9-for-25 shooting, including a 4-for-9 mark from 3-point land, to go with a game-high 10 rebounds, six assists, three steals, one block and just one turnover.
After combining for just 19 points in an overtime Game 4, Lowry and DeRozan popped for 19 on 6-for-13 shooting in the first quarter alone. DeRozan worked his way into the paint to get some easy layups to go down before stepping out for his more customary midrange looks, while Lowry got untracked thanks to a pair of in-rhythm 3-pointers and a couple of trips to the line, helping the Raptors build an early 16-point lead that they'd never fully relinquish.
"Early on, some of the lack of discipline in terms of allowing them to get some rhythm shots, rhythm free throws, early on in that first quarter — that's a dangerous thing with All-Stars," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "They see the ball going through that net from the free-throw stripe, and now they get a little bit more confident in other areas."
The All-Stars' 59 combined points is the most they've contributed as a duo this postseason, and with Toronto already missing injured rising-star center Jonas Valanciunas and losing starting forward DeMarre Carroll to a left wrist contusion following a collision with Heat point guard Goran Dragic late in the third quarter, those buckets were sorely, sorely needed. (The Raptors said that X-rays on Carroll's wrist came back negative.)
"You know, they're our guys," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said. "We can disparage them all we want to, talk about how bad their shooting is, but again, you don't forget how to score the basketball. It's going to come back. You hope it's within the series, but it's going to come back."
Toronto outscored Miami by 25 points in Lowry's 41 minutes and 26 seconds of floor time, and the Heat outscored the Raptors by 17 points in the 6 minutes and 34 seconds that Lowry got to rest. There are reasons to view individual players' single-game plus-minus numbers with some skepticism, given the lack of overarching lineup context and the infinitesimal sample, but in this case, the numbers matched the eye test. Lowry was that big a difference-maker for the Raptors on Wednesday, and his two-way effort helped tilt the game in the final 75 seconds.
Toronto dominated the first half, leading by as many as 20 points thanks to strong starts from DeRozan, Lowry and shot-blocking, power-dunking center Bismack Biyombo, who would finish with 10 points, six rebounds, four blocks, two steals and multiple Heat shots altered in 38 minutes of work in Valanciunas' stead. But the Heat walked them down, relying heavily on small-ball lineups featuring playmaking center Josh McRoberts or nothing but wings, as 3-point-sniping rookie Josh Richardson and Canadian Public Enemy No. 1 Dwyane Wade fueled an 18-6 run over a 6-1/2-minute span to cut the deficit to one at 88-87 with 1:54 remaining.
After a pair of DeRozan free throws, Miami had the ball down three with a chance to tie. Dragic appeared to have a step on Lowry as he drove toward the basket, but Lowry hustled to beat his former Houston Rockets teammate to the spot and turn him away from the paint; Dragic spun and sent a pass back to the left corner, only to find that teammate Justise Winslow had vacated in favor of a baseline cut to the basket, resulting in a turnover.
"I'd missed like four or five easy shots throughout that fourth quarter, and I got an opportunity to make up for it," Lowry said.
On the ensuing Toronto trip, Lowry cashed in on that opportunity by taking a page out of Stephen Curry's book late in the shot clock:
Wade answered Lowry's deep 3 with a pull-up jumper to get the lead back down to four, but Lowry again had the answer, hitting a tough leaning J to put Toronto back up by six with 23 seconds left:
At several points, TNT's cameras captured Raptors assistant coach/director of sports science Alex McKechnie tightly wrapping a red shoelace around DeRozan's injured thumb during stoppages in play, reportedly to create compression, stabilize the injured joint and get more blood flowing through the ailing area.
Whether due to that treatment, an adjustment he made on his own or something else, DeRozan began to look much more comfortable rising and firing from further away as the game progressed, shooting 7-for-10 outside the restricted area in the second half; moreover, after shooting just 14-for-26 at the stripe in the first four games of the series, he made all 11 of his free throws, including six in the final two minutes to ice the game.
"Thousand-dollar shoelace," a smiling DeRozan said after the game. "That's all that I can say. Thousand-dollar shoelace."
Wade led the Heat with 20 points on 6-for-14 shooting, seven rebounds and four assists, while both Dragic and Richardson added 13. With star center Hassan Whiteside once again unavailable due to injury and replacement starting center Amar'e Stoudemire ineffective early, Spoelstra had to mix and match in search of workable lineups. He found his best success going small, especially in the second half ...
Heat with a centerish player (Stoudemire, McRoberts, Haslem): -13 in 32 minutes— Dan Feldman (@DanFeldmanNBA) May 12, 2016
Heat without a center: +5 in 16 minutes
... but he found it more difficult to do so after losing small-ball power forward (and, increasingly, center) Luol Deng midway through the third quarter to a left wrist injury of his own; X-rays were reportedly "inconclusive," so his status for a do-or-die Game 6 remains very much in question.
“It’s very unfortunate. Obviously, I don’t know what happened with Luol yet, but he’s an important part of our team, like Carroll’s a big part of their team,” Wade said. “That’s the worst part of the game, injuries […] We will continue to move on. Hopefully Luol is with us, if he’s not, the next guy will have to step up.”
Heading into Wednesday, the Raptors needed somebody to step up, and their two signature stars finally managed to do it at the same time. If the Heat can't return the favor on Friday night, the Raptors may well clinch the first trip to the Eastern Conference finals in the franchise's 21-year history.
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