CLEVELAND â€” Itâ€™s stunning when you step back and think about it. Imagine for a moment a universe where LeBron James wasnâ€™t on the floor late in a playoff game for Cleveland or Steph Curry for Golden State or James Harden for Houston or Al Horford for Boston or, heck, Bradley Beal for Washington.
Go down the list of playoff teams, look at their elite players â€“ the ones credited for helping them get into the post-season â€“ and imagine any of them being better without that player on the floor with a game to be won, with a season in the balance.
The Toronto Raptors went in that direction with DeRozan in Game 3 against Cleveland. But they were rewarded with one of their best quarters of the series as they came oh-so-close to completing a 17-point second-half comeback, only to be undone by Jamesâ€™ running, fading, one-legged, game-winning bank shot as the clock expired.
â€śIt was one of them games,â€ť said DeRozan in explaining his absence.
â€śHe had a tough night,â€ť said Raptors head coach Dwane Casey.
But itâ€™s not the first time DeRozan hasnâ€™t seen the floor in the fourth quarter of important games. When the Raptors desperately needed to hold off the Boston Celtics to clinch the first seed in the Eastern Conference? DeRozan was on the bench.
When the Raptors were faced with going down 2-0 in their series against Indiana in 2016?
DeRozan was on the bench.
Nothing personal, says Casey.
Donnovan Bennett and JD Bunkis talk everything Toronto Raptors and take fans inside the NBA with news, analysis and interviews.
â€śI talked to him before practice today,â€ť Casey said Sunday as the Raptors were trying to makes sense of being down 3-0 to the Cleveland Cavaliers for the second year running after Jamesâ€™s buzzer-beater on Saturday night â€śAs a coaching staff, we went with the five guys who were getting the job done at the time. There isnâ€™t anything personal, or trying to embarrass [DeMar] or anybody.â€ť
And no offence taken, says DeRozan, who sat for the last 14 minutes of the game after shooting 3-of-12 from the field while scoring just eight points.
â€śI respect that,â€ť he said Sunday of Caseyâ€™s decision. â€śYou know me. Iâ€™m a competitor. I want to be out there. Youâ€™re always hoping for it to go into overtime and Iâ€™m pretty sure I would have been back in there but it didnâ€™t happen. If my teammates would have won that game, great.â€ť
But as the Raptors try to convince themselves that they can have some impact against the Cavs â€“ teams trailing 3-0 in best-of-seven series are 0-129 in NBA history â€“ DeRozanâ€™s role in Game 3 is telling.
Itâ€™s not that DeRozan isnâ€™t an excellent player. That heâ€™s turned himself into one with a painstaking approach to his year-by-year skill development makes him â€“ rightfully â€“ one of the most respected players in the NBA and a Raptors icon.
Itâ€™s just that his flaws â€“ primarily his maddeningly occasional defensive impact and a lack of pure playmaking feel when his scoring deserts him as it did in Game 3 â€“ can make him a burden against good teams in big games in a way other elite players almost never seem to be.
Barring a historic comeback, the Raptorsâ€™s season is doomed to end in disappointment once again. As they try to properly evaluate where they are as a franchise, DeRozan is almost a symbol of the limbo they seem trapped in.
His steadiness, his commitment to the city and the way heâ€™s comfortable sharing responsibilities and the spotlight have helped forge the best five years in Raptors history.
And his accountability may be his most endearing quality. It commands respect.
Livestream the Raptors and other marquee NBA Playoffs matchups, including Games 2, 3 and 6 of the Raptors-Cavaliers series. Plus, get coverage of the NBA Finals, NBA Draft & NBA Awards.
â€śFor me, in general, in life I always take the roughest things and face them head on,â€ť he said. â€śYou know. As much as you may not like something, some people run away and hide from a certain feeling, me I try to dig as deep into it as I can and understand and be one with that feeling that sucks â€¦ you kind of dislike it so much you kind of find the enjoyment of it, in a sense.
â€śItâ€™s kind of weird. I donâ€™t know. Itâ€™s me being a wannabe philosopher or something. Itâ€™s just my method.â€ť
But all the self-examination in the world canâ€™t change what seems like an immutable fact: DeRozan is a really good NBA player, capable of some extraordinary things, but in a league where post-season success is almost always determined by how good your best players are, he often falls short.
And the seeming limits of his abilities form the Raptorsâ€™s ceiling as well.
Since the Casey-era Raptors first made the post-season in 2014 â€“ after a year when Ujiri had decided the Lowry-DeRozan core wasnâ€™t good enough and would have blown them up had the Knicks not backed out of trade for Lowry â€” theyâ€™ve played in nine series against six teams.
Have they had the best player in any one of those series? With the possible exception of their second-round meeting with the Miami Heat in 2016, youâ€™d have to say they havenâ€™t.
Against the Cavaliers they certainly donâ€™t.
When viewed through that lens what the Raptors and DeRozan have accomplished â€“ an average of 53 wins a year and four playoff series won â€” should probably be celebrated rather than looked upon as some kind of failure of will or nerve.
Itâ€™s hard to argue the Raptors or DeRozan have sold themselves short.
DeRozan has had â€“ arguably â€“ his best season and the Raptors certainly have. But when the game mattered most and the season hung in the balance, DeRozan wasnâ€™t playing and the Raptors didnâ€™t miss a beat.
When the times comes to examine the Raptors year, good and bad, that may be the most salient fact.