PORTLAND - DeMar DeRozan validated his newly minted All-Star title, spearheading the Raptors' comeback on Saturday but there's one play he'd like to have back.
With just under five seconds remaining - the Raptors having clawed back from a 19-point deficit and pulled within one - DeRozan took the handoff from Chuck Hayes. As he tried to create space, turning the corner with Blazers' guard Wesley Matthews draped all over him, the first-time All-Star fumbled the ball off his calf.
His reaction was instant and said it all. He knew he, quite literally, dropped the ball.
"I lost the ball, I put that one on me," DeRozan said, owning up to the miscue. "I've got to keep the ball in my hands and not turn it over, at least give us a chance to get a shot off."
Fact is the Raptors had that opportunity, a shot to steal a game they had no business hanging around in, because of DeRozan's heroics.
DeRozan, like the rest of his teammates, came out flat in the first half. Coming off a win in Denver the night before, Toronto shot 35 per cent from the field in the opening 24 minutes, misfiring on all eight attempts from three-point range. As a team they couldn't execute, missed makeable shots and left their defensive effort in the Mile High City. It was ugly.
"The first half, we came out with a typical back-to-back approach," said coach Dwane Casey, who was critical of his team after they let up in the fourth quarter of Friday's double digit victory over the Nuggets.
"It wasn't us."
DeRozan, playing in his second game after missing two with an ankle injury, had just six points, shooting 2-of-8.
Whatever was said at the break seemed to wake up the fifth-year guard. DeRozan could do no wrong in the second half, where he scored 30 of his game-high 36 points and recorded 10 of his career-best 12 assists.
"I mean, he's an All-Star. Y'all see it," said Kyle Lowry, who should be joining DeRozan in New Orleans later this month. "He's an All-Star for a reason. He did an unbelievable job of making shots, getting to the line and just getting it going. We know. We've seen it before so it's no surprise to us."
Lowry, like his backcourt comrade, was also much better in the second half - he had 23 points and eight assists on the night - as were subs Patrick Patterson and Chuck Hayes, who came in and helped the Raptors find themselves defensively.
The resilient Raptors dug deep once again - something we've become accustomed to seeing after slow starts this season - and when it came down to one final possession, there was never a doubt who the play was being drawn up for.
"[DeRozan] wanted the ball and when your best player, your All-Star wants to the ball you give him the ball," Lowry said. "They did a good job defensively and [Matthews] is strong enough to do that but I'm still getting the ball to [DeRozan] every single time in that position."
Within seconds of losing the ball, DeRozan walked off with both hands on his head in disappointment. He tapped his chest as if to say, "my bad" and lifted the jersey over his head.
"We put ourselves in that position," Casey said, stressing the poor start. "[DeRozan] wanted the ball, we gave it to him, but I give him props for getting us to that point."
"I commend DeMar for carrying us. He put us on his shoulders and took us down the stretch and put us in a position to win. That's all you ask."
The loss - Toronto's sixth straight in Portland - said a lot about how far the Raptors have come, how far DeRozan has come. If there was ever any doubt about DeRozan's All-Star candidacy or his growth as a leader, Saturday's game served as a silencer. He had his full arsenal on display, demanded the ball with the game in the balance and when it was all said and done he took responsibility for his blunder. No excuses, he pointed the finger at himself.
Meanwhile, his team fought the good fight, something they failed to do when they last visited Portland.
A year ago, the Raptors experienced the absolutely lowest point of an already low season, dropping an embarrassing 92-74 contest to the Blazers on Dec. 10, 2012, the finale of a winless five-game road trip. They lost Lowry and Andrea Bargnani to long-term injuries in the game, while Amir Johnson was ejected for uncharacteristically tossing his mouth-guard at an official.
Their skid in Portland continues, they haven't won in The City of Roses in seven years, but they're not the same team that left the city in turmoil 13 months ago.
"We put ourselves in a position to win the game even after all that," Casey said. "So that's what you have to ask for."