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Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are out to exorcise the Toronto Raptors’ NBA playoff demons

It’s something that no one can explain, at least as far as statistics are concerned. The Toronto Raptors’ inability to win Game 1 in the NBA playoffs is bewildering. So much so, that the team’s regular season leading scorer, DeMar DeRozan, resorted to using an analogy to describe the bizarre trend placed by critics on his and running mate Kyle Lowry’s shoulders.  

“You ever had an old Regal?” DeMar DeRozan said following the team’s ninth consecutive opening round loss in the postseason—tying the Sacramento Kings for the most in NBA history.

“Once you get going, then it can feel like a 2016 Lexus.”

In fact, the only time the Raptors have ever won the opening game of any playoff round was in 2001-02 when they beat the Philadelphia 76ers in first game of the Eastern Conference semi finals.

No one is holding Lowry and DeRozan accountable for nine seasons of failing to start the postseason on the right note, but after Saturday evening’s 97-83 loss to the to sixth seeded Milwaukee Bucks, many were quick to point out the dynamic duo’s historically low playoff shooting percentages.

Entering Game 2 Tuesday night, Lowry’s career postseason field goal percentage with the Raptors stood at 38.5 – well below the two-time all-star’s career regular season mark of 42.4 per cent. In comparison, DeRozan had shot just 38.6 per cent from the field in 32 playoff games prior to last night’s game.

The Raptors have defied expectations all season long, and despite their pundits, have surmounted statistical adversity and the plateaus imposed on them by skeptics who deem players like DeRozan to have already reached their peak and the team to be incapable of escaping a seven game playoff series.

The team’s success seems precarious at best, but nothing could be further from the truth, thanks to a head coach Dwane Casey’s tactile offensive scheme that maximizes the best skillsets of each player on the roster for a result that albeit delayed, ultimately does pay off.

For example, the Raptors assist on the fewest field goals in the entire league this past season—a mere 47.2 per cent—but had the sixth ranked offence in the association. Moreover, amid the era of the three pointer, the Raptors ranked 21st in three pointers made, and DeRozan—the fifth leading scorer in the NBA—posted the second worst three point percentage (26.6 per cent) among the league’s top 40 scorers, behind only Derrick Rose at 21.7 per cent.

It’s no secret that Casey’s offence predicates itself on isolation basketball. Any Raptor fan will tell you that DeRozan’s game resembles that of Kobe Bryant. Using a variety of pump fakes, post ups, pull ups, and footwork, the former USC standout has emulated the Laker great in a manner that few scouts anticipated he would when he was drafted ninth overall in 2009.

Even Bryant acknowledges the similarities.

Although DeRozan’s offensive approach stalls the offense, it’s also integral to the team making 19.7 free throws a game—third best in the league thanks to DeRozan’s average of 7.4 conversions from the charity stripe a game (fifth in the NBA). Factor in the league’s eighth best defense (104.9) and attention to detail that allows the Raptors to take care of the ball (fourth fewest turnovers per game at 12.7).

Add plenty of defensive pressure (fourth most steals per game at 8.3), and you have the inner workings of a legitimate championship contender.

Or so it would seem.

Regular season success has rarely translated to postseason ascension for the Raptors. At least as far as Game 1s are concerned. During the 2016 playoffs, the team was forced to claw their way back after losing Game 1 to the Indiana Pacers in the Eastern Conference quarterfinals by a score of 90-100, which eventually was followed by a margin of 96-102 in Game 1 of the Conference semifinals against Miami.

DeRozan and Lowry shot an average 35.6 and 23 percent, respectively, between both games.

Saturday, DeRozan and Lowry’s shooting woes continued. DeRozan shot 7-21 from the field, while Lowry went 2 for 11. Across their entire tenure as Raptors, DeRozan and Lowry have converted on just 34.8 and 26.6 percent of their Game 1 field goal attempts.

The dynamic duo is the first to admit that these totals are unacceptable for players of their caliber, let alone for a team like the Raptors, who rely on their joint productivity on a nightly basis. DeRozan alone posted a usage rate of 34.2—sixth highest in the NBA—during the regular season.

The issue when a team relies heavily on the individual play of guards like DeRozan and Lowry is that it juxtaposes a fine line of success against a very high degree of difficulty. When the execution isn’t there, the offense and the team falls apart. However, the Raptors have developed a habit of proving people wrong. In Game 2 against the Bucks, the team played into the tenuous status quo that the Toronto faithful has reluctantly come to accept. Like it or not, the Raptors are slow starters.

Toronto doesn’t seek to play from behind, but thanks to DeRozan and Lowry’s failure to execute at the beginning of a series, they’ve established a peculiar knack of responding just as glances of concern are being directed their way.

Such was the case once again in Game 2 where the Raptors responded to a Game 1 drubbing and beat the Bucks 106-100 two nights later.

Contrary to what their previous postseason statistics indicate, DeRozan and Lowry both shot 50 percent from the floor, recorded over 20 points, and lent their hand to one of the more complete games in Raptors first round postseason history.

There’s no telling if the productive play shown on behalf of the formidable guards will last, but if it does, the Raptors stand to put the Eastern Conference, and potentially the NBA, on notice.

Andrew Savory

Currently enrolled as a second-year Master of Journalism student at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada. An aspiring sports writer and hoping to work in sports broadcasting and colour commentary for a professional basketball franchise.

Previously interned at the National Post, the Ottawa Citizen and TSN Radio 1050 Toronto

Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are out to exorcise the Toronto Raptors’ NBA playoff demons

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