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Heartwarming evening ends on low note for DeRozan in Toronto return

Sportsnet logo Sportsnet 2019-02-23 Michael Grange
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(Provided by CBC)

TORONTO – There wasn’t one ovation. There were three, each louder and more sustained than the last. The first came when the San Antonio Spurs took the floor for pre-game warm-ups.

Even then, even with the unusually early 7 p.m. start, the roar went up, the phones were held high.

The joke amongst the Spurs was – inevitably — to tap fellow former Raptor Jakob Poeltl on the chest and tell him ‘this is all for you’ as the Spurs’ Chimezie Metu did.

DeMar DeRozan standing in front of a crowd © Provided by Rogers Media Inc It wasn’t for Poeltl, or for anyone else — although Poeltl did get a tribute of his own later in the half.

But it wasn’t the same and probably won’t be in the future, either.

The fuss, the emotion and the attention were for one man and one man only: DeMar DeRozan – nine years a Raptor – and for first time in his career, at Scotiabank Arena as a San Antonio Spur.

“It’s an honour,” DeRozan said afterwards. “I spent practically my whole career here, to come back and get a reception like that is definitely humbling, beyond gratifying and I appreciate it.”

But these things are never that that simple.

February 22, 2019 will always be the night that DeRozan came home for the night after being sent away in the middle of one back in July.

But how DeRozan, his former Raptors teammates and the 19,800 inside Scotiabank Arena really felt about what happened?

For the best proof you’ll find that friendship ends inside the lines, just look at DeRozan lying on the floor at mid-court after his best friend Kyle Lowry and Kawhi Leonard – the guy the Raptors traded him for – conspired to rip the ball from the Raptors icon’s hands with 15.1 seconds left.

Leonard’s uncontested lay-up gave Toronto their winning margin in a 120-117 victory.

Said Lowry: “It was fun, pretty fun. Especially because we got the win. If we lost it would have been terrible.”

Apart from coughing up the game-losing turnover on the middle of the floor where you poured your blood, sweat and tears, how was your homecoming, DeMar DeRozan?

“It made it fun to go out there and play and compete,” said DeRozan. “It was a heckuva game, it came down to a couple of plays. It sucks that the big, critical play was me turning the ball over.”

So, a very heart-warming evening with a cold-blooded ending – just the way Raptors fans wanted it.

“Tonight the fans came out and showed him some love,” said Leonard. “But they still knew what were here for and that was to get the win.”

It took a while, but the Raptors eventually got there.

The next roar went up when Day 1 Raptors public address announcer Herbie Kuhn went into his long-practiced ‘And from Compton …’ before the crowd drowned him out again during the pre-game introductions.

And then with just over five minutes gone in the first quarter came a timeout and one more wave as a video tribute that started with DeRozan being drafted as a 19-year-old and touched on nine years of highlights.

The ovation started before the tribute began and lasted throughout the timeout as DeRozan took the floor.

DeRozan allowed that he might cry the other day, but in the end he didn’t, though the steely look on his face suggested he might have been trying to fight back some emotions.

And then, coming out of the time out, the Raptors ran a clever set and sprung Danny Green for a wide-open three that he knocked down like the money ball at the NBA’s three-point contest.

For the longest time leading up to DeRozan’s return to Toronto, the game seemed secondary, like a prop around which everyone could hang their feelings.

It can be a tricky thing, trying to perform at your peak when the heart is full and the adrenaline is surging. In early December, the Raptors went to San Antonio in what was an even more charged situation as they entered a hostile environment with Leonard at the centre of the Spurs’ fans vitriol and laid a collective egg. The game was over before the second quarter started; Leonard was flat and his support non-existent while DeRozan put up the first triple-double of his career in a flawless performance.

“Emotion effects everyone – not everyone – but most people, most normal people who have emotions, it does affect you, that’s why they try to eliminate distractions and try to eliminate the emotions out of it so you’re focused in,” said Green, who came to the Raptors from San Antonio in the DeRozan deal, along with Leonard and played his worst game of the season back in San Antonio, but was 5-of-7 from deep against his old team Friday night.

“Obviously you want the good emotions, the positive vibes to make you play better and play confidently, but emotions are tricky. Sometimes they help you play emotional and passionate and sometimes they can hurt you and get you out of your game.”

What impact was the emotion of the occasion having?

It was hard to tell, as it was emotional for both sides. DeRozan, the beating heart of it all, handled himself just fine except for that one not-so-shining moment.

He neither shrunk from the occasion or dominated as he finished with 23 points and eight assists before making that one crucial turnover.

His pal Lowry, excited at the prospect of playing against his teammate of the previous six seasons, showed well, knocking down three triples, adding five assists and tripping up his buddy when it mattered most.

Interestingly, the man who claims to be the least affected by the emotion of any moment, Kawhi Leonard, looked like he could use some for most of the night.

Shot after shot fell short. He seemed confused by the defensive attention his old team threw his way as the primary defender was often under-sized point Spurs point guard Patty Mills. He looked like DeRozan on a bad night in the playoffs.

He finally got going in the second half and finished with a game-high 25 points on 23 shots, effectively playing DeRozan to a tie, other than coming out on top during the key play.

In the end, for all the tributes and memories and efforts to play through and make new ones, the game was the final arbitrator of how anyone felt.

It always is.

“At some point, you’ve gotta lose yourself in the game. I don’t know when that is, I don’t know if it’s when the ball goes up or if it’s after the first timeout and the tribute video’s over,” said Raptors head coach Nick Nurse whose emotions got the better of him when he was ejected after being hit with consecutive technical fouls late in the third quarter. “But at some point, whatever emotions or noise or distractions or whatever are going on around the court, you’ve gotta get focused into the game and play it.”

The biggest cheer of the night after the early-game tributes came when Lowry was matched up against DeRozan in a late-game isolation. The smaller guard dug in against his old friend and eventually forced him into an errant pass picked off by Pascal Siakam.

“A lot of times you’re just looking for a mis-match, getting a smaller guy on me,” said DeRozan. “But obviously Kyle’s fat ass knows how to guard me, so.”

There was more of that to come. The Raptors needed the win and DeRozan was an obstacle.

For all their affection, in crunch time, Raptors fans cheered loudest for DeRozan’s miscalculations.

The crowd came both to celebrate their old friend and to see his old team win. It’s basketball. It’s sports.

The crowd left happy.

Also watch: Game Wrap: DeRozan goes head-to-head with Leonard in Toronto return (Provided by CBC)

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