DENVER – The thinking of DeMar DeRozan before joining San Antonio: Shoot.
The mentality now: Share.
Always a skilled scorer, the 29-year-old and four-time All-Star has taken his game to another level in San Antonio by taking to the floor with a different approach – a get-teammates-even-more-involved approach.
“Spurs’ way, baby,” said DeRozan, whose team leads 1-0 heading into Game 2 on Tuesday against the second-seeded Denver Nuggets.
A year under coach Gregg Popovich has rubbed off on DeRozan , who was acquired in a deal last summer that sent Kawhi Leonard to Toronto. He’s coming off a regular season in which he averaged 21.2 points, 6.2 assists and 6.0 rebounds. Those are the sorts of numbers no Spurs player has averaged for a season. Not David Robinson. Not Tim Duncan. Not Tony Parker. Not George Gervin.
Flattering, for sure.
“All the great players who came through this organization, the history, for me to be mentioned in something like that is definitely amazing,” DeRozan said. “I’m definitely honored for it.”
All that by slightly adjusting his game. There was never a conversation he needed to do so, just a feeling.
“Trying to understand my teammates, understand the guys around me,” DeRozan said. “When I did that, understand the amount of shooters I had around me, the amount of scorers I had around me, it was on me to be dominant and find those guys and maximize their skills as well.”
His cast includes LaMarcus Aldridge and up-and-coming shooter Derrick White, who had a late steal and free throws to seal Saturday’s 101-96 win at Pepsi Center. These days, DeRozan doesn’t need to hoist up a bunch of shots. In fact, he took 100 less shots this season than a year ago.
Gone are the days when he needs to erupt for 30 points to lift a team. The Spurs were 7-6 when he went for 30 or more. In contrast, they were 18-6 when he had eight or more assists. As for his 3-point shooting, he only hit seven — his last one on Dec. 26 against Denver – as he took 242 less attempts than in ‘17-18.
“You think of him as a great scorer, a one-on-one scorer, more of a throwback player,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “DeMar is a great player because he continues to evolve. ... Now you have DeMar DeRozan attacking and living in the paint, drawing a crowd. He’s making the right play, making all of his teammates better, which is a sign of growth, which is a sign of somebody who understands being a selfless player.”
The postseason hasn’t always been friendly to DeRozan. He went to the playoffs his last five seasons in Toronto, with one Eastern Conference Final to show for it.
“I had a lot of success and a lot of fails in the playoffs,” DeRozan said. “That’s kind of like my motivation to be able to come start fresh here with a new group of guys. I have a great opportunity.”
So far, a good start for DeRozan in this version of the postseason. He played a big role in San Antonio’s win. Sure, with his shooting (6-of-17 for 18 points), and rebounding (12) but even more with his passing (six assists, including three in the fourth quarter).
“Can’t be satisfied. Now I want to see what it’s like to be up 2-0 on the road,” DeRozan said. “That’s the mentality.”
Before his arrival in San Antonio, DeRozan thought he’d seen just about everything in hoops. But he quickly realized one thing in working with Popovich – he hasn’t.
“He gave me something that I thought, I wouldn’t say I thought I knew it all, but gave me a different perspective on the game,” said DeRozan, who notched his first career triple-double against Toronto on Jan. 3, with 21 points, 14 rebounds and 11 assists. “Knowledge. Small things, from being a good teammate to sharing the ball to different ways of scoring. Just a different type of leadership that he shared with me from Day 1 that I took with me and ran with it.”
The preparation is a little different with the Spurs. Not better, not worse, just different. The Spurs have been to the postseason for 22 consecutive years and have captured five championship rings.
“Pop just has a certain poise to him,” DeRozan said. “Sometimes it’s not much that needs to be said, but what’s said, it’s understood as long as you’re listening and apply it. His calm before the storm is definitely different.”
AP freelance writer Michael Kelly contributed to this report.