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Raptors’ back-to-back games to pit LeBron, Curry against DeRozan

Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan, seen in Saturday’s game against the Knicks, was named Eastern Conference player of the week on Monday.

Nathan Denette/CP

Practice was winding down at BioSteel Centre on Monday when Norman Powell made a tactical error. He tried to stand in the way of DeMar DeRozan.

And, like most players who have attempted to do so this season, Powell failed.

Powell, a second-year guard with the Toronto Raptors, was the first player to come over to speak with reporters who had assembled at the spacious practice facility. That contravened the strict pecking order of life in the NBA, where the stars call the shots. After all, the media throng was primarily there to interview DeRozan, who is off to a torrid beginning to the season and he was not about to let Powell's show of insolence go unchallenged.

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So DeRozan ran over and playfully pushed his teammate out of the way, taking his rightful spot on centre stage.

Powell accepted his punishment with grace. "I mean, when you're DeMar and you're the franchise player, you get away with a lot of things," Powell said later.

DeRozan, of course, has been pushing players around with impunity all season and is the main reason the Raptors are off to a solid 7-2 start to their season. But reporters' questions quickly turned to the scheduling nightmare DeRozan and his teammates face this week – back-to-back games against the powerhouse Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, who have won the past two NBA championships.

"The computer that spit out the schedule, I'm going to find it and break it," said Toronto coach Dwane Casey, only half-joking.

The first game will be played Tuesday night in Cleveland, a rematch against the LeBron James-led Cavaliers: In Toronto's second game of the season, back on Oct. 28 at Air Canada Centre, the Cavaliers earned a hard-fought 94-91 victory.

Following Tuesday's game, the Raptors will fly home for a Wednesday-night game against the run-and-gun Warriors, featuring two-time (and counting) NBA most-valuable-player Stephen Curry.

As back-to-backs go, it is a brutal scenario for the Raptors. But it is too early in the season, Casey said, to suggest that these games have any added meaning.

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"It's good for us, it's not a measuring stick," Casey said. "I think we're still trying to get our rotations down as far as what we want to do in certain situations, who we want to guard, who can do what in certain situations. [We are] still trying to figure those things out a little bit.

"It's that part of the year, I'd rather go ahead and get these [games against] two of the best teams in the league in now and go from there."

The Cavs and Warriors, in turn, have to defend DeRozan, who is leading the league in scoring, averaging 34 points a game – almost 10 points above his career-high from last season. He has scored 30 or more points in eight of Toronto's first nine games, and if he manages another 30-plus night against Cleveland to make it nine of 10, he will become the first player to rattle off such a streak since the prodigious Wilt Chamberlain at the start of the 1962-63 season.

On Monday, the league rewarded DeRozan for his efforts, naming him the Eastern Conference player of the week. The last time a member of the Raptors sat atop the league's scoring leader's table was Vince Carter early in the 2003-04 season.

DeRozan has been successful because, plain and simple, he is making shots from all over the court. Overall, DeRozan is hitting on 52.8 per cent of his shots this season, a marked improvement over his 44.6-per-cent rate of a season ago.

And from mid-range – anywhere from 10 to 14 feet from the basket – he has been deadly, connecting on 59.1 per cent of his shots. It doesn't seem to matter if a defender has hands in his face and is generally harassing him. The shots are still falling, especially late in the games when teams turn to their best players to lead them to victory.

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"The game has slowed down," Casey said when describing DeRozan's offensive proficiency. "He doesn't get rattled. At that time of the game, teams tend to get more physical and grab and hold and bump, and he just brushes it off now. That's the difference I see in DeMar now.

"He is mature. He's a man now as opposed to a kid getting beat up in those situations and the officials respect him now whereas three or four years ago they probably would let the veterans get away with a lot of stuff. The game has slowed down for him and I see that as being the biggest change for him."

"It's like Neo in The Matrix," DeRozan said of the movie character who has the ability to dodge bullets, as if they're coming at him in slow motion.

"Like I said, I watch so much [game] film, I study so much – every angle, every defensive coverage, every opponent – even on nights before games – understanding if there's going to be a big guy or a smaller guy on me. Just really getting mentally prepared that way just sets it all differently when I go out there and play."

Powell often has to guard DeRozan at practice, and he is amazed at his teammate's ability to clear enough space on the floor to launch a shot. He said he hopes some of DeRozan's act will rub off on him.

"He knows where his spots are, he knows where his shots are coming from," Powell said. "He knows as long as he gets to his spots, it's like a workout for him. It's routine."

"I'm just asking him, picking his brain on how he's reading the defence, how he's seeing these gaps, so when I'm in those similar situations, I can see it the way he sees it, the way the game slows down," Powell added. "It's all about learning and improving, and I'm learning from one of the best scorers in the league, the top scorer in the league right now."

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