TORONTO -- Two days before the first playoff game of his life, DeMar DeRozan was already tired of talking about experience. The Toronto Raptors swingman had been looking forward to this for years, forcing himself to watch postseason basketball on TV when he'd rather not. He wanted this stage, in this city, more than anything.
The 24-year-old DeRozan knew the Brooklyn Nets' veterans had seen it all, and that his team was not as battle-tested. That wasn't going to change in between then and tipoff, and it didn't mean they were in different leagues. The Raptors, after all, were the third seed here.
"It ain't like it's rocket science or nothing," DeRozan said. "Everybody keeps talking to me like, bringing it up like it's rocket science or I've got to know trigonometry or something. You just figure it out. You just go out there. I've been playing this game long enough, I've been in the league long enough, been in a lot of situations. So it shouldn't be hard."
That didn't stop the questions from coming -- what about adjusting to the officiating, the physicality?
"I think I've watched enough playoff basketball to see how physical it is and to see how things go," DeRozan said. "Even superstar players don't get calls out there. So I'm conscious of it. I'm not naive of anything. Now I'm in a position to go through it myself."
After going through it, he was glad to just get the first one out of the way.
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Prior to Toronto's first playoff game since 2008, head coach Dwane Casey said the Raptors were as ready as they could be. They'd make adjustments during and between games, but needed to be the same team they were in the regular season. This would be Toronto's first appearance on U.S. national television this season, and the atmosphere would be entirely new.
"My biggest concern is don't get caught up in the hype," Casey said.
As he spoke at 10:45 a.m. Saturday morning, there was already a mad mass of success-starved Toronto fans outside of the Air Canada Centre. Thousands were packed into Maple Leaf Square, loud and proud of their surprising squad. All afternoon, ESPN's cameras couldn't get enough of the scene.
Standing out there on a podium, Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri stirred up the crowd. Caught up in the hysteria, he ended his speech with "Fuck Brooklyn!" Ujiri would wind up apologizing for his choice of words, but not the sentiment.
Inside, fans arrived early. Those who hadn't put on their white, playoff-themed shirts were shown on the in-arena video screen and booed roundly until they did.
In Brooklyn's locker room, center Jason Collins recalled the last time these teams met in the playoffs. It was 2007, the Nets played in New Jersey and he was the starting center. Toronto had won 47 games to earn the third seed. The more seasoned Nets took the opening game at the ACC and went on to win in six, holding Raptors star Chris Bosh to 40 percent shooting in his first series. Collins said this felt very similar, and laughed when reminded of Toronto fans in their red playoff shirts with New Jersey in its alternate red jerseys.
Collins couldn't even remember his first playoff series, in 2002. He guessed it was against the Milwaukee Bucks, but that was actually the next season. Perhaps in 12 years DeRozan will have the same problem, but for now this was the biggest moment of his Raptors career.
This was a game that featured not one, but two pregame pump-up videos. The national anthem singer stopped after the first verse of "O Canada," and raised his mic to the heavens, allowing the fans to take over. Casey didn't want his players too amped up, but that'd be next to impossible.
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DeRozan drove against Shaun Livingston with just more than three minutes left in the first quarter. He'd used an Amir Johnson screen, but hadn't gained an advantage. A crossover created a little bit of separation, but the lengthy Livingston stayed with him. Falling away from the basket, his awkward runner hit glass, not rim. Toronto trailed by nine, and its All-Star was already 0-for-5 from the field.
"They overplayed him," Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry said. "They really denied him the ball. We gotta find ways to screen ‘em and get him more looks, get him open a little bit sooner, quicker and get him to his sweet spots."
Livingston and reserve Alan Anderson made life difficult for DeRozan, and there was always help waiting. There were few driving lanes and transition opportunities, and on the other end Joe Johnson took him down to the post. DeRozan's first field goal would come late in the third, a few minutes after the shot clocks stopped working. The malfunction meant public address announcer Herbie Kuhn had to call out the number of seconds left, piping in at 24, 10 and counting down from five. The last thing the young team needed was another extra worry.
Late in the fourth quarter, it still could have gone either way. Even with DeRozan struggling, Toronto was down by three with three minutes on the clock that the players couldn't see. For all the talk of wisdom and savvy, 15-time All-Star Kevin Garnett had just made his first field goal. 10-time All-Star Paul Pierce had only six points. That's when Pierce scored on four straight possessions for nine points in about two minutes, stealing home-court advantage and affirming the narrative.
DeRozan finally got an easy bucket with 11 seconds left and the game out of reach as Brooklyn conceding a dunk. That gave him 14 points on 3-for-13 shooting in a 94-87 loss, an underwhelming postseason debut. In the regular season, he averaged a team-high 22.7 points per game.
"I've got to help him get open shots," Casey said. "But this is the time when you do step up, and nobody wants to win more than DeMar DeRozan. His heart is into it. He's got sweat equity into this team. Everybody is going to have an off-night. Their whole gameplan was to take him out, and they're a veteran team and they did."
Casey has preached patience since the start of the season and he's fond of saying guys don't grow up overnight. Looking to Game 2, though, that's essentially what will be asked of DeRozan. The Nets are challenging him to be a playmaker rather than a scorer, and he's going to have to make the right reads. That's where he's been much better in this breakout year, and in the locker room he didn't sound discouraged.
"It's just one game," DeRozan said. "I know I'm going to watch film, we're going to watch film tomorrow, we'll see things we can do better on both ends. I had a tough game today."
Laying the blame solely on DeRozan would be missing the point; Toronto had too many turnovers, not enough ball movement and two other ineffective starters. This team counts on him for offense, though, and the expectation is he'll learn from this. The Raptors just have to hope it happens quickly.
"It's the first game, can't panic," Toronto point guard Greivis Vasquez said. "He's our best scorer and he's an All-Star, so he knows what he's got to do."