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MIAMI – DeMar DeRozan's shot had betrayed him before his right thumb bent backward in a tussle for a loose ball with Dwyane Wade late in the first game of a second-round playoff series in which he waited seven years to participate.
After the Toronto Raptors eliminated Indiana and removed the unfair weight of 15 years of postseason failure, DeRozan assumed the challenge of succeeding beyond that initial first-round hurdle would be more about superior competition and the constant adjustments to varying defensive schemes. But with a thumb that requires blocks of ice wrapped around his hand after every practice and game, DeRozan realizes that he will need more mental resolve to overcome his current physical limitations.
The timing couldn't have been worse for DeRozan or the Raptors. With an Eastern Conference finals trip within their grasp, the team's All-Star shooting guard now has difficulty simply tying his shoe.
"I’ve never been one of those guys to be like, ‘Why? Why did this happen, or why'd it happen now?’ It’s part of the game. You’ve got to take the good with the bad sometimes," DeRozan told The Vertical after Miami defeated Toronto 94-87 in overtime to even the series at two games each. "I’m going to fight through it, deal with it and go from there with it. I’ve got a whole summer to let it heal and figure itself out."
DeRozan's postseason performance thus far – he scored nine points Monday night – may have given some fans pause about their teams’ plans to give him a maximum contract this offseason, but the fact remains that DeRozan will get his massive payday, whether it's from Toronto or not.
The 2016 free-agent class takes a precipitous fall after Kevin Durant, but so many teams will have so much money to spend and so few stars to spend on that DeRozan hasn't lost a cent despite his errant shot in these playoffs. Few players in the league possess DeRozan's scoring ability, which – much like Wade (at least before this series) – comes without a reliance on the 3-point shot. And, DeRozan shot down any notion Monday night that his struggles this postseason have been the result of him stressing over that looming contract.
"I feel like I have nothing to worry about," DeRozan said of his pending free agency. "I take it day by day, whatever happens. I’m not even looking towards then. I’m thinking about the next game and trying to figure out that."
DeRozan, however, does feel that he shares a responsibility with Kyle Lowry to take the Raptors where they have never gone. Lowry was so obsessed with producing in the postseason that he rarely took the time to appreciate what the team was accomplishing in the regular season, always prepared to dismiss the success by looking ahead to the place where real stars separate themselves.
"We put a lot of pressure [on us]," DeRozan told The Vertical. "We put extreme pressure. We put the work in, we try to figure it out the best way we can. We’ll take the heat any day. It’s all about being a leader, so we’re going to figure it out."
DeRozan and Lowry have to solve that riddle soon, because Wade, the Heat's lone remaining All-Star, is playing his best basketball of the season and is also two wins from the first postseason duel with good friend LeBron James. Wade has been authoring remarkable playoff performances since DeRozan was in high school and Lowry was in college. And at a time when so many expect him to start fading, Wade refuses to go away. The three-time champion has summoned the nerve and the will to keep the Heat chugging along even after the loss of center Hassan Whiteside to a sprained right knee.
"It don’t matter how long you’ve been around, if you’re a champion, you’re going to figure out a way," DeRozan said of Wade, who has scored 68 points in his past two games – two points fewer than DeRozan's four-game total.
Without years of postseason glory to lean on, this stage has seemed too big for Toronto's All-Star duo. The Raptors live and die by DeRozan and Lowry, and their seesaw shooting efforts have made that proposition feel like tap-dancing around land mines. The sheer volume of shot attempts and misses has been staggering. And while Raptors coach Dwane Casey admires DeRozan for being "a tough kid," he admitted that the thumb injury is "a concern."
Toronto has had such a jagged postseason run because it has often had to find ways to win in spite of its two best players. Losing Jonas Valanciunas for the rest of this series – and possibly much longer, should the Raptors advance – because of a severely sprained ankle has increased the team's dependence on DeRozan and Lowry.
Lowry appeared to finally resurrect his swag with a dynamic, 33-point performance in Game 3 as he dueled Wade bucket for bucket, but wasn't able to keep it going for consecutive games. If Lowry could've avoided fouling out Monday, Casey could've kept the ineffective DeRozan on the bench for the final minutes, and the Raptors would likely be heading back home to Toronto for a closeout game. DeRozan was forced to finish, even as dribbling and shooting were a problem.
"You can’t let frustration get to you, at all. Can’t listen to what the outsiders got to say. You just can’t get caught up in that. You’ve got to stay positive," DeRozan said. "It’s 2-2. We’ve got a great opportunity to go home and do what we can do."
The Raptors have been waiting for DeRozan to experience at least one game this series that's reminiscent of his regular-season play. Free throws were once an ally if his jump shot failed him; now they provide taunts. Point-blank layups aren't even a given.
"It is what it is. It’s nothing I can … it is what it is," DeRozan said. "The feeling of me being uncomfortable, not doing all of the things that I normally do, gripping the ball and everything. It’s nothing I’ll make an excuse about."
If lost confidence is defined by timidity, then DeRozan remains as cocksure and defiant as ever. He has refused to let his injured digit stop him from playing the same way that helped him lead the Raptors to a franchise-record 56 wins and their first playoff series win in 15 years. That has worked to his detriment several times already this postseason, but DeRozan is optimistic that it will eventually turn.
"We did a lot of great things all season," DeRozan told The Vertical. "We’re in the conference semifinals, and we haven’t played our best basketball like we know we can. It’s nothing but a matter of time once we get to clicking. As long as we have time playing, we definitely have a chance. You realize, it’s a new opportunity, a clean slate to deal with whatever new challenges come ahead and we’re dealing with them now."
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