With a little more edge, Raptors aiming to rise to another level

Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have helped Toronto to back-to-back 50-win seasons. (AP)
Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan have helped Toronto to back-to-back 50-win seasons. (AP)

DeMar DeRozan isn’t usually one to lose his cool. His reserved, modest demeanor falls in line with a steady, unflappable game that is uniquely his own. So, it probably came as a surprise recently, when Indiana Pacers’ antagonist-in-chief Lance Stephenson made a late-second layup during a rare blowout loss for the Toronto Raptors, and DeRozan reminded everyone that beneath that calm exterior, there’s still a kid who is straight outta Compton.

DeRozan sprinted down the court to approach Stephenson, shoved him twice and shouted a stream of unrepeatables into his ear. Raptors newcomer P.J. Tucker joined DeRozan to harass Stephenson until tempers eventually tapered. Tucker, who has known DeRozan since long before returning to his original NBA team at the trade deadline, later explained that DeRozan playing the role of angry, unwritten-rule-enforcer wasn’t all that usual for a low-key player who generally keeps his passions restrained.

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“He’s got that side, but people don’t see it because he’s kind of quiet,” Tucker recently told The Vertical. “That’s just having each other’s back, riding together, no matter what, good or bad, just sticking together as a team.”

With the trade-deadline additions of Tucker and Serge Ibaka, the Raptors have a bit more edge as they enter the postseason for the fourth year in a row. Tucker, a 6-foot-5 brick, always appears ready to scrap, and Ibaka, battle-tested from deep playoff runs with the Oklahoma City Thunder, has already served a one-game suspension for taking a vicious swing at Chicago’s Robin Lopez. But if this is finally the year that Toronto – or any other Eastern Conference team – is able to end LeBron James’ six-year conference reign, the team will need to see another side of DeRozan and his All-Star backcourt mate, Kyle Lowry: that of prime-time playoff performers.

Though they won’t downplay what they’ve accomplished this season – completing consecutive 50-win seasons for the first time in franchise history and claiming the third seed in the East despite Lowry missing 21 games with a broken right wrist – the Raptors know that they are no longer judged by regular-season results. “Another 50-win season? The Spurs get 60 all the time. They don’t care, they want another ring,” Lowry told The Vertical. “I’m never satisfied with nothing, until I get a ring. I still won’t be satisfied. And I want to get as many as I can possibly get. That’s what the best ones do. They never settle. They want to continue to get better. They’re never satisfied. They’re never content. And that’s how I feel I am.”

After reaching the conference finals last season, Toronto, at least, wants a return. But that would require defeating upstart Milwaukee and possibly the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers in the second round – a place where James’ season has ended only three times in 11 playoff appearances, none since 2010.

The postseason hasn’t brought out the best in DeRozan and Lowry, who succumbed to some Paul Pierce trolling in a seven-game, first-round loss to Brooklyn in 2014 and a first-round sweep to Washington in 2015. They were also off target for the first two rounds in a seven-game series against Indiana and Miami last season. Those experiences have the duo better prepared for what to expect. And, DeRozan believes those past failings contributed to him responding to signing the third-largest contract in NBA history with the greatest season of his eight-year career.

DeMar DeRozan has had the best regular season of his career. (AP)
DeMar DeRozan has had the best regular season of his career. (AP)

“You’ve got to go through things, adversity, to understand what it takes to be better,” DeRozan told The Vertical. “I never cried about a struggle because you can always learn a valuable lesson through a struggle and that could build you and make you stronger for the next go-round. That’s how I always look at things.”

DeRozan hasn’t had the triple-double hype of MVP favorites and his fellow Los Angeles-area natives Russell Westbrook and James Harden, but his season has been historic. He passed Chris Bosh as the franchise’s all-time leading scorer, became the first Raptor since Vince Carter to score 2,000 points in a season and surpassed Carter for the most 30-point games in a season and the most 20-point games in a Raptors uniform. “Whenever you get mentioned with one of my favorite players, a Hall of Fame player, Vince Carter, it’s definitely an honor. I don’t care what it is, if I drank more Gatorade bottles than him,” DeRozan said with a laugh. “I remember being a kid watching him play and now I’m playing for the same franchise I watched him build.

“I never do it for nobody else,” DeRozan told The Vertical. “I do it for my team and for the betterment of us to try to be a better team. At the end of the day, I let all that speak for itself. I just want to be good in this game. Never want to be an average player. That’s always been my motivation. Until that fades, it’ll be obvious that I just want to be better and be the best player I can be.”

And, with a non-conformist style in defiance of the NBA’s 3-point revolution, DeRozan is about to become the first shooting guard in a decade and the third in the past 20 years – joining Michael Jordan and Dwyane Wade – to average at least 27 points while attempting fewer than two 3-pointers per game. DeRozan loves to share that last stat with Lowry, who chuckled as he explained how his good friend might never take another 3-pointer to remain in that elite company. “I’ve been in the gym, and in the trenches with him, and I’ve seen the work he’s put in. So you learn to appreciate that a little more,” Lowry told The Vertical. “I’m not sure what the world thinks of him, I’m sure they think he’s pretty damn good – he’s top five in scoring. And even if you don’t like how he does it, you’ve got to respect it.”

Lowry and DeRozan have been the league’s best buddy-cop film for the past few years. But Lowry is especially grateful to DeRozan for how he was able to help the Raptors avoid a hangover early in the season and later remain afloat in the point guard’s absence. Toronto had hit a midseason lull before Lowry spoke up about the team’s lack of focus, and general manager Masai Ujiri made his case for trade-deadline MVP by acquiring versatile, defensive-minded players in Tucker and Ibaka. But before they could be anointed the greatest threat to the Cavaliers, Lowry had his participation in the rising tide delayed by an ill-timed injury. Lowry stayed in shape and earned an interesting perspective while working alongside the coaching staff during huddles.

“I was bored out of my [expletive] mind,” Lowry told The Vertical with a laugh. “Had to keep my mind stimulated on basketball.”

The day after DeRozan confronted Stephenson, Lowry returned to regain his rhythm and help lead what should be an intriguing playoff push. Much like last season, when DeRozan’s pending free agency hung over the franchise, Lowry can opt out and earn a considerable raise this offseason. Toronto has avoided allowing free agency to become a distraction, even with the additions of free agents-to-be Ibaka and Tucker, who have fit in admirably. Tucker is set to make his playoff debut, 11 years after the Raptors drafted him in the second round, while Ibaka is back on the big stage after taking a detour through Orlando. “It’s always fun to play for something, and have pressure and big goals, that makes you better,” Ibaka told The Vertical.

Lowry struggled with a lower-back injury two years ago, and battled with his confidence for much of last postseason, with the lasting image being him taking jumpers in a hoodie on the Air Canada Centre floor after a Game 1 loss to Miami in the conference semifinals. “For me, it was about getting myself going and being confident, knowing, having no fear to fail because I put the work in,” Lowry told The Vertical. “We won two series with us not playing extremely well. So, at the end of the day, it’s still impressive what our team did. All we can do is grow from it. I don’t think it’s going to happen again. I hope it doesn’t – for our sanity.”

This season will present more challenges for Lowry, who will be adjusting to his new teammates while recovering from an injury to his shooting hand. But overcoming past tests, and being one of the two teams to claim postseason victories off the champs last postseason, have Lowry and DeRozan more confident about what the Raptors can achieve this time. They have the experience, added some much-needed nastiness and they will soon find out if that’s enough.

“It’s great to have that type of energy that we could feed off of. Hopefully, it’ll be extremely beneficial once the playoffs start,” DeRozan told The Vertical. “But it don’t mean nothing, come this weekend, if you don’t do what you need to do. From where we came last year, your ultimate goal is to play for a championship. If you don’t have that mind-set, then I don’t know why you’re in the sport. That’s our mindset. To try to get closer and closer as we can, to give ourselves the best opportunity to get that.”

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