Lewenberg: Playoff dreams coming to fruition for Raptors

Josh Lewenberg
3/13/2014 7:31:06 PM
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TORONTO - At the ripe old age of 26, Amir Johnson - the team's second-most experienced player - is one of only two Raptors starters that can give a firsthand account of what it will be like to compete in the postseason.

"All he says is, 'it's crazy'," DeMar DeRozan told reporters following Toronto's win over the Pistons Wednesday.

The Raptors' longest-serving members, Johnson and DeRozan have had two coaches and 56 different teammates in five seasons with the club, all without appearing in a single playoff game.

Before becoming a fixture in Toronto, Johnson logged 56 minutes in 11 postseason contests spanning over two seasons with the Pistons. At the time, the forward was primarily a spectator, mentored by the likes of Rasheed Wallace, Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton and Antonio McDyess.

Johnson is a man of few words but he's shared a couple with DeRozan, who is poised to make his playoff debut next month.

"Amir says one word and you really just have to go off that one word, how he explains something," said the Raptors' all-star guard. "Everything is crazy to him. So, he always says it's crazy."

"It's crazy, D," Johnson interjected from his locker on the far side of the room.

"See, so it's crazy," DeRozan continued. "Playoffs are going to be crazy."

Up until this season, DeRozan and Johnson had endured 190 losses to just 119 wins in Raptors' red. They haven't played in a meaningful late-season game since their first year with the team, Chris Bosh's last. Their bond is a unique one, as you might expect, having experienced the trials and tribulations of the Raptors' four-year playoff drought together.

"That's my dog, man," DeRozan said of Johnson, both hail from the state of California. "Amir's known me [since] I was running around with the same pair of dirty shoes on playing basketball. We always used to look up to Amir, especially in LA. He was a big star and everything. It's definitely cool just to be here with him."

"People don't know, Amir's my cousin," he said with a smirk, jokingly, we think. "You can ask Amir."

So we did.

"Oh man, I don't know," he responded, this was news to him. "I have no idea. Somewhere down the line, I guess. I guess we're cousins, I don't know. I've got to talk to his mom, talk to my mom and see."

DeRozan, the Raptors' leading scorer, is enjoying a career year but the playoffs - as coach Dwane Casey has cautioned - are a different animal. The atmosphere is intensified, the competition more fierce, scoring opportunities are harder to come by, weaknesses are magnified and in a seven-game series the opposition's scouting report will undoubtedly feature DeRozan.

There's been a steep playoff learning curve for Raptors' stars of the past. Bosh, Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady each shot under 40 per cent from the field in their first postseason series. Making his playoff debut as a 23-year-old in 2000, Carter shot just 30 per cent, turning the ball over nearly three times per contest in a three-game sweep to the Knicks.

Even with that in mind, DeRozan believes he's more prepared than most. While many players on losing teams find it far too maddening to watch their peers compete for a title in April and May, the Raptors' guard has done just that each year he's missed out, making notes and using them for motivation.

"I had to [watch]," he admitted, "just to understand, to see how it was. You're playing the same team, possibly seven times. Just to understand that and see the different schemes out there and try to really get a knowledge of how its played."

"That's why I work so hard. It always bugged me going home early, just sitting there, doing nothing. It used to make me so hungry. I've got a lot of friends that play in the playoffs and I've always got to hear them all summer talk about their experience in the playoffs. It's always pushing me even further. I just want to get there, not even for myself, just for this organization as well. It definitely feels good that we're moving in the right direction now."

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