TORONTO — DeMar DeRozan has been working toward this moment since last spring, when Toronto took Cleveland to six games in the Eastern Conference final in the Raptors’ historic post-season run.
It was on his mind even at the Olympics in Rio, and the motivation for this moment would propel him to one of the finest regular seasons in Raptors history.
Now the 27-year-old is poised to lead the Raptors back into the post-season, where expectations are greater than ever before.
“Now for me the real thing starts. This is what I worked all summer for,” DeRozan said. ”This was the only thing during the Olympics on my mind — getting back to April, May and playing in the moment. Pushing myself to get myself in that mindset for those games. For me, my measuring stick doesn’t happen until Saturday.”
DeRozan and the Raptors host the Milwaukee Bucks in Game 1 on Saturday at the Air Canada Centre, and met with the media Thursday after a walkthrough and film session. The team was feeling the post-season buzz, he said.
“We kind of started to feel it last night on the plane coming home (from Cleveland),” DeRozan said. ”Everybody is just excited. Couldn’t wait to come in today. I know I came in early just to get some work in and get completely locked in and embrace this feeling.”
The Raptors dispatched Indiana and Miami last season before facing eventual NBA champion Cleveland, and were ushered off the ACC floor after Game 6 to cheers as their thrilling run came to an end.
They’re a much wiser team for the experience, they say. If the focus last year was to win one series, something Toronto had only done once before, in 2001 versus the New York Knicks, this season they’re talking ”game by game.”
“We understand what it takes to get there,” DeRozan said. ”Let’s take it one game at a time and with that understand what we’ve got to do to get there and how hard it is. That’s our mentality this time around.”
All-star guard Kyle Lowry echoed DeRozan’s sentiments. He bristled when asked whether last year’s experience could make this post-season any “easier.”
“No. It’s still hard. It’s still hard,” Lowry said. ”You’ve still gotta go out there and play. The playoffs are a different beast. No matter what you’ve done last year or the year before, this is a completely new slate. We can’t take what we did last year and bring it into this playoffs aside from experience.
“We’ve got to go out there and put our foot down and play basketball, lace ‘em up, tie ‘em up, go play up and down and run basketball plays.”
DeRozan heads in to the post-season as an almost unstoppable scorer, averaging 27.3 points a game. He scored 30-plus points in 31 games to surpass Vince Carter’s franchise record. So while he struggled mightily at times in last year’s playoffs, he believes he’s better prepared a year later.
“Every year I try to come with an answer for something from the year previously. I think that’s what experience (brings about), you take heed of something before,” he said. ”That’s why you work extremely hard, why you pay attention, why you study the game and find ways to be better, so you don’t be in the same position.”
DeRozan said Lowry’s 21-game absence with a wrist injury helped. It put DeRozan squarely in the crosshairs of other teams’ defences.
“It’s a great challenge and I feed off that sort of attention,” DeRozan said. ”I’m more accepting of it this time around, understanding how teams are going to play me, the attention I’m going to draw defensively so it’s on me to make things easier on my teammates.”
The Raptors’ defence, meanwhile, will have their hands full with Bucks all-star big man Giannis Antetokounmpo. The athletic player known as ”The Greek Freak” leads the Bucks in five statistical categories.
Antetokounmpo will be making his post-season debut, but Raptors coach Dwane Casey said what he lacks in experience, he’ll make up for with hustle.
“He plays so hard, the kid plays so hard, he has a heart as big as this table,” said Casey — sitting at a six-foot-long table. “And his compete level, you’ve got to match his compete level to play against him.”
The Raptors have won four straight season series against the Bucks, winning three of four games this season.
Both teams roar in to the post-season on high notes. The Raptors won 12 of their final 14 games, despite the absence of Lowry for a good chunk of that stretch. The Bucks won a league-best 14 games in March, including a 101-94 victory over Toronto on March 4.
Game 2 is Tuesday in Toronto, then the series heads to Milwaukee for Game 3 on Thursday and Game 4 next Saturday.