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TSN Raptors Reporter

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TORONTO - The thing about sentences that start with 'not to make excuses, but...' is they almost always end in an excuse.

DeRozan's is valid, to be fair, and to his credit he seems sincerely uncomfortable using it, even when pressed, but as he repeated over and over again following Monday's Game 4 overtime loss in Miami: "It is what it is."

What is it?

The Raptors' all-star guard has been playing through an injured thumb on his shooting hand, which he bent in a direction thumbs aren't meant to bend while fighting to recover a loose ball late in Game 1. He hasn't been very good since but, as some will rightly point out, he wasn't much better before.

DeRozan, a 45 per cent shooter during the regular season, had knocked down 33 per cent of his field goal attempts in the playoffs before sustaining the injury. He's 19-for-59 since, hitting at roughly the same clip.

"It’s a little bit of both," said Dwane Casey, who was asked if DeRozan's disappointing play is a result of the injury or a regular old slump. "He was having shooting woes before the thumb [injury], but now he has the thumb [injury] and he’s dealing with that along with the confidence in his shot and his offensive rhythm. So he’s got a double whammy."

"I mean, it is what it is," DeRozan said. "It's something I've got to deal with so complaining or making excuses for it won't help. It's just something I've got to deal with."

Icing his right hand after recent practices and games, DeRozan admits he's had difficulty gripping a basketball or even performing run-of-the-mill tasks like tying his shoes. 

"It’s something he wants to play with," Casey said. "He says he’s okay, he says he can go, but I see him losing the basketball in a crowd... He’s going to have to manage the pain, get treatment [Tuesday] and [Wednesday] and see where it is."

"I mean, yeah [it's bothering me]," DeRozan admitted after the 94-87 loss. "Just the feeling of it being uncomfortable, not [being able to do] a lot of things I normally do, gripping the ball and everything. I think the missed layup really showed me how much I've got to deal with it. But like I said, it's nothing I'd ever make an excuse about. I know for sure I'm not going to shoot like I did tonight [in the] next game, I know that for a fact. It's just something I've got to deal with and I'll push through it."

DeRozan scored nine points in his 34 minutes of action - the third time he's been held under 10 in the playoffs, something that happened once in 78 regular season games. He shot just 4-of-17 which, to his point, would be difficult to replicate, but he's hit fewer than 30 per cent of his attempts in five different games this spring, so it's certainly not out of the question.

Perhaps the impact of his injury is evident at the free throw line, where he's shot 10-for-20 over the last three contests after hitting 90 per cent of his attempts to that point. Perhaps it's responsible for the wide open layup he missed on Monday - which he eluded to above - the air ball he shot from 18 feet to open the game, or the fourth-quarter fumble he ended up kicking into the face of Goran Dragic - the poor, stitched-up face of Goran Dragic. Or perhaps it's not.

Not dissimilar to his teammate Kyle Lowry, who has been battling an elbow ailment and shooting just as poorly, we don't know how much of DeRozan's funk is physical or mental. One thing is for certain, neither have looked anything like the players Toronto needs them to be.

Lowry is still finding ways to help his team. It's not ideal, they could certainly use his scoring in a series that has become something of a punchline, but he's making an impact on the defensive end and with his playmaking ability. Unequivocally, the Raptors are better when their starting point guard is on the floor. The same can't be said for DeRozan, not lately.

Through 11 playoff games, both guards are shooting 33 per cent. The difference: the Raptors are outscoring their opponents by 2.8 points per 100 possessions with DeRozan on the bench, yet they're being bested by 26.5 when Lowry sits.

DeRozan has improved a great deal over his seven years in the NBA, he's a deserving all-star and one of the league's top scorers at his position but, more often than not, he's been a hindrance in this post-season. He doesn't defend well enough and his decision making and shot selection haven't been good enough to compensate for the broken jumper.

On Monday that nearly bought him a seat on the bench to watch the entire fourth quarter for what would have been the second time in three weeks, something Casey deserves credit for - sitting your leading scorer in crucial minutes of a playoff game is not an easy decision, even if it's the right one. But, when Lowry fouled out with just over 90 seconds left in regulation, Casey turned to DeRozan in the hopes of keeping the offence afloat. In the end, it sunk right along with the defence. With Bismack Biyombo - the only rim protector left in the series - on the bench in favour of DeRozan, the Heat attacked at will. Five of their nine shot attempts in overtime came in the restricted area, they also pulled down a couple offensive rebounds and that was the game.

The thinking was not as reprehensible as it may seem in hindsight. Casey was not just going small to match-up with Miami. In Cory Joseph, Terrence Ross, DeRozan, DeMarre Carroll and Patrick Patterson he used a lineup - or at least a Lowry-less version of it - that he's had success with in this series, one many expected him to deploy late in games with Jonas Valanciunas sidelined for the duration of the Conference Semifinals. It didn't work.

“We were trying to create offence," said Casey, shortly after the team's return flight landed in Toronto the following afternoon. "That lineup had been successful for us the night before. But even with Bismack in they were getting to the rim. If you don’t contain the ball another extra couple of dribbles, I don’t care who you got in there, they're going to get to the rim. Is that an adjustment we might make? It could be. We might go even smaller so that is something we have all talked about as far as getting the right group in there to defend the basketball late in the game."

The Raptors will almost certainly continue to "ride or die" - as Casey put it a couple weeks back - with DeRozan and Lowry, through the good, the bad and yes, even the ugly. Casey's is a precarious position. It's more than just blind loyalty that has him sticking with his stars, he knows the Raptors best chance - and maybe their only chance - at advancing is through their best players. Valanciunas isn't walking through that door and team's depth guys, who have been stepping up, can only take you so far, especially if the Heat are successful in finding Dwyane Wade some help.

"They’re not shooting the ball well, it’s written history," Casey said. "We know about it, Miami knows about it. We’re trying to do things to get around it. We’re trying to create more offence with those guys struggling the way they are, but again, they’re going to be our guys because at some point they’re going to get their rhythm, their shot." 

"Someone else is going to step up and they may be more of a decoy or whatever, but it's not like we’re going to bench Kyle and DeMar and go away from them. They’re our guys. We believe in them. They’re our two all-stars and sooner or later they’re going to come through or be a part of what we’re trying to do."

Lewenberg: No way Raptors can afford to bench DeRozan

TSN 1050 Raptors Reporter, Josh Lewenberg joins Naylor and Landsberg in the Morning to discuss Raptors issues in the playoffs and DeRozan’s injured thumb, Raptors need to think about Lowry and DeRozan for the future.

The other side of the coin is, what if they don't come around? More and more, that's looking like the reality Casey and his club are facing. DeRozan and Lowry have played 22 post-season games together with Toronto over the last three years. Their playoff resumes are getting bigger, so is the sample size, and the body of work doesn't inspire much confidence. Combined, they shot 39 per cent against the Nets in 2014. They shot 36 per cent in last season's first-round sweep against Washington. The match-ups have changed, defenders have come and gone, they've been healthy and they've been injured, yet the results have basically been the same. 

There are excuses to be made, sure, there are always excuses to be made, if you need them. Paul George had played in all but one game this year, carrying a massive workload for the Pacers after missing the bulk of last season recovering from a serious, potentially career-altering leg injury - but he was spectacular in the opening-round series. Only one player on the Raptors roster is older than Dwyane Wade, who has battled injuries and been forced to change his game over the years - he's taken a beating in this series, physically, but he's been the best player on floor, for either team. Warriors guard Stephen Curry, the league's first ever unanimous MVP winner, scored 17 points in overtime alone on one leg Monday.

Great players figure out a way to get it done.

The longer this goes the more people will wonder whether DeRozan has what it takes to hold up under the bright lights of the post-season, if he's great enough, or even good enough, and they'll be right to do so.