By Frank McLean
With the Toronto Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals, are you ready to believe now?
So how did this happen? How did the Raptors finally go from pretender to contender?
It was one man, Dwane Casey.
“I still don’t think he gets a lot of the credit that he (Casey) deserves,” DeMar DeRozan said at shootaround in Cleveland. “He stuck to everything since day one. Casey hasn’t changed one bit. When you have a coach like that (who) sticks to what he thinks is right, it gets you here years later.”
What a difference 15 years makes.
Unlike game seven of the 2001 Eastern Conference Semi-Final in Philadelphia, no one on the Raptors had to attend their college graduation ceremony on the morning of what was then the biggest game in franchise history.
The seventh game 15 years later in Toronto with a different opponent, the Miami Heat, had no drama off the court. All of it was on the court and that’s what it should have been.
But who saw this happening, a fourth quarter blow out win which finally sees the 21-year old franchise making it to the conference finals and just four wins away from a shot at their first appearance in a championship final.
Maybe that’s getting a little carried away, but it’s a fact the Raptors are just four more wins away from a chance to play for the Larry O’Brien trophy. The words Toronto Raptors and NBA Champions have never been used together without people rolling on the floor with laughter.
Sunday’s 116-89 win finally moved this franchise from Canada from the punch line of a bad joke to a legitimate NBA contender. They made the final four and in the United States the way they look at sports no one takes you seriously until you are one of the final four teams standing. And with the NBA being a United States based league having just one team in another country, making the final four is the only way Canada is going to get any attention.
When Casey was brought to Toronto by former President and General Manager Bryan Colangelo in 2011 he was fresh from winning an NBA Championship as an assistant coach for Rick Carlisle’s Dallas Mavericks. He brought 16 years of NBA coaching experience with him including a year and a half as the head man in Minnesota. He knew the ingredient that makes you a contender in the NBA is defense first.
He also brought the patience to never deviate from the program and a belief in the players on his roster.
It showed right from the beginning of the playoffs against Indiana with the struggles of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan. The shooting woes of the two Raptors guards was so well documented that a whole forest of trees was cut down to supply enough newsprint for sportswriters to write that these guys have to go.
Lowry was in the slumps of all slumps, he couldn’t make a basket and DeRozan well he just isn’t a playoff performer and if the Raptors sign him to max contract the person who does that should be fired or so said Toronto’s media naysayers.
Then duo combined for 63 of the Raptors 116 points in the Game Seven win over Miami. The winning formula for a Raptors has been, if the duo combine for 40 or more points, the Raptors win. “Empty the clip,” as Lowry explained earlier.
Every time you asked Casey about Lowry and DeRozan he would tell you that he never doubted they would get out of their funk and that “players like them don’t forget how to score, it’s like riding a bike you don’t forget how to do it.”
Casey will not sit on his laurels though and in his postgame comments Sunday he is still keeping his eye on the prize so to speak.
“I’m not a sentimental person,” Casey said. “For this program, from where we were to where we are, it’s important. We did what we set out to do. Again, we’re not done yet. I know what it’s like to win a championship and I’m not saying we can do that, but I think this group is hungry and never, say never. I know one thing our guys will compete and that’s all you can ask at this time, play hard, lay it all on the line for 48 minutes, no matter who is out there.
“Personally, it’s rewarding to see for our coaching staff, but we still have a series to go in the Eastern Conference.”
Also kudos have to go with current Raptors basketball head Masai Ujiri who could have let Casey go when he came on board. It’s the right of any new boss in sports to come in and bring in their own people. He didn’t and that’s a credit to Ujiri who saw that he already had his man to run the bench.
But like Casey said it’s not over yet, the next chapter is the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The pundits have this being another Cavaliers four game sweep and yes with this Raptors team being battered and bruised and missing their big man in middle Jonas Valanciunas, it’s going to be a lot tougher to go up against LeBron James.
The Cavaliers are on mission, they have unfinished business against the Golden State Warriors.
However, coach Casey will have his team ready to play with their usual defense first game plan and I wouldn’t bet on a four game Cleveland sweep.
Not with Dwane Casey running the show.
Veteran journalist Frank McLean has covered nearly every Raptors game in Toronto since their inaugural season at the Skydome back in 1995-96. He has seen it all. The good, the bad and the really bad and he is one of the very few journalists in Toronto that has kept coming back for more.