DeMar DeRozan has a history of coming up short in the NBA Playoffs. DeRozan led the Toronto Raptors to 50+ wins in each of his last three years with the franchise before routinely getting smoked by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the postseason. DeRozan was eventually traded to the San Antonio Spurs as the headliner in a package for Kawhi Leonard, who immediately led the Raptors to their first ever NBA championship.
Now at age-32, DeRozan has put together the most prolific season of his career with the Chicago Bulls, one that saw him average a career-high 28 points per game while putting his name in the MVP conversation. The regular season success still didn’t silence doubters about his playoff failures, and his Game 1 performance against the Milwaukee Bucks in the first round only gave his critics more ammunition.
DeRozan shot only 6-of-25 from the field in Chicago’s Game 1 loss in what was one of his worst efforts of the year. After the game, DeRozan told reporters there was “no way in hell” he was going to shoot 6-of-25 again.
NBA fans immediately got off jokes at DeRozan’s expense after hearing the quote. DeRozan had his fair share of poor shooting nights in the playoffs during his time with the Raptors, and he seemed to be tempting the basketball gods by saying it wasn’t going to happen again. With two of the game’s best defenders in Jrue Holiday and Giannis Antetokounmpo staring him down on every possession, it felt like a bold claim to make.
The Bulls were again a double-digit underdog as the series returned to Milwaukee for Game 2. DeRozan missed his first jump shot of the game, and then missed his next two jumpers as well. A less confident player might have been shaken by such a start, but not DeRozan. Eventually, DeRozan found his way into some easy buckets, and by halftime the Bulls led by 63-49 behind 12 points from DeMar.
Milwaukee made a change in the second half without injured big man Bobby Portis, moving Antetokounmpo to the five and changing his defensive assignment so he could switch any screen on DeRozan. The Bucks chipped away at the lead, and eventually the game came down to an individual matchup between the teams’ two biggest stars: the two-time MVP in Giannis vs. the veteran wing with a history of playoff failure.
All DeRozan did was go 8-of-9 from the field when guarded by Giannis, according to NBA.com’s matchup data. The only time Antetokounmpo stopped him was on a ferocious block near the basket. Otherwise, DeRozan was calmly draining jumper after jumper over Giannis’ outstretched arm.
Here’s a video of every matchup between DeRozan and Antetokounmpo from Game 2.
There are several instances of Antetokounmpo playing in a deep drop like Brook Lopez, which played perfectly into DeRozan’s midrange heavy attack. When Giannis did get to the level of the screen defensively, he seemed a step slow to contest, possibly because he didn’t want to foul DeRozan on his jumpers like so many other suckers this season.
Giannis is my pick for the best defender alive, but DeRozan kept him off-balance by leading the dance in the halfcourt. Giannis didn’t know which way DeRozan was going, and he was worried about getting got on his signature pump fake. With the game on the line and the Bulls’ up three in the final seconds, DeRozan got the ball after two offensive rebounds, drove to the lane, and finished through contact from Antetokounmpo to seal the win.
DeRozan ended the night with 41 points on 16-of-31 shooting. He was right: there was no way in hell he was shooting 6-of-25 again.
This was nothing new for DeRozan this year. He took 71 percent of his attempts from midrange — with 41 percent of them coming from ‘long midrange’ — according to Cleaning the Glass, which led all players. He made 49 percent of his midrange shots — and 46 percent of his ‘long midrange’ shots — two numbers that are incredibly impressive compared to league-wide averages.
This was the DeRozan that Bulls fans watched all season — but not the same player NBA fans are used to seeing come up short in the playoffs. DeRozan is simply a more confident offensive player at age-32, knowing his exact spots on the floor and owning a deep bag of tricks to get defenders feeling uncomfortable. His game is old-school in a late-’90s kind of way: he’s taking the type of long midrange shots the Bucks want to surrender, but he makes them more efficiently than just about anyone.
DeRozan called his shot and came through for the Bulls in Game 2. With Middleton now likely set to miss time after spraining his MCL in the second half, the Bulls might really have a shot to make this series interesting now. If it happens, it will mainly be because DeRozan is ready to shine on the biggest stage possible.