Many, including myself, were shocked that the Raptors weren’t blown away by the Celtics on Friday night, let alone that the Raps actually picked up the W. Toronto had no real match for Boston’s talent or experience that night, and yet with a basic game plan, a team full of unproven youngsters and a few guys on 10-day contracts pulled away from a surefire playoff team with a few future Hall of Famers.
After the game, coach Dwane Casey talked about how the game plan was to “milk it,” to go deep into the shot clock on offence and to dig in on defence. As Casey half-joked, to get the victory on that night, the Raptors “had to set basketball back pre-shot clock.” It worked, and it gave us another example of how Casey manages to somehow find a way to keep this lackluster team (and that’s putting it mildly) competitive.
For the most part, almost everything Casey has done in his first season on the job in Toronto has worked. That might sound silly just a day after a 22-point loss dropped his team to 22-40, but I’d argue coaxing 22 wins out of this collection of talent is a feat in itself.
And if it hasn’t worked in terms of wins and losses, it’s worked in terms of keeping this team competitive on a night to night basis. At 22-40, the Raptors have a respectable average point-differential of -3.5. They’ve nearly cut last year’s average of -6.3 in half, and you could argue that with injuries and trades, Casey has had half of last year’s team to work with.
The other encouraging sign about Casey’s influence is that it seems to have bred better results as the season has worn on. At 14-29 towards the middle of March, the Raptors were about to embark on a 19-game stretch that was expected to dig them a deeper hole in the standings, and put them in a much better Draft Lottery position. 19 games in 31 days, with 15 of the 19 games coming against winning teams.
Instead, the Raptors went a respectable 8-11 during that stretch, including 7-8 over the last 15 games (12 of those 15 games came against playoff teams), with an average point-differential of -0.9.
While it was a devastating run for “Tank Nation,” it was an impressive run nonetheless. And when you consider that Andrea Bargnani, Jose Calderon, Jerryd Bayless and Linas Kleiza all missed time during the month-long sample, and that the Raptors were counting on the contributions of 10-day players, it was by far Casey’s most impressive stretch of the season.
The only complaint (other than the “we’re winning too much” theory) I’ve heard Raptors fans express this season is that Casey’s slow-it-down, anything to win style actually takes away from the pace and entertainment of the game. For his part, and he mentioned it on Friday night, Casey says that once he has “the horses” to play the way he ultimately wants to play, the Raptors will play defence “and run.”
I’m the type of fan that couldn’t care less how you get me a W. Win pretty, and I’m happy. Go ahead and grind it out to win ugly – I like that grimy victory feeling too. Instead of taking Casey for granted and complaining about his style of play, I’m just relishing in the fact that if and when the Raptors finally have those “horses” Casey talks about, he’ll be the coach taking the reins.
Dwane Casey might be that rare breed of coach that can legitimately make due with less, if need be. He might be that rare breed of coach who can both implement a winning game plan from an X’s and O’s standpoint, and be a great motivator for his players.
The question that will need to be answered going forward, is whether Casey can implement a winning game plan that bears results when there are actually expectations to win in Toronto, and whether he can motivate and get the most out of his players when he has established and proven NBA talent at his disposal.
You won’t find anyone brave enough to guarantee Casey can or will do it. But with the job he’s done this season, I have a feeling you won’t find many people foolish enough to doubt that he’ll do it either.