The Toronto Raptors went into the 2013-2014 NBA season in serious evaluation mode and every time the word ‘playoffs’ was mentioned, President and General Manager, Basketball Operation Masai Ujiri and Head Coach Dwane Casey changed the subject. It wasn’t that no one believed playoffs were possible, but it became obvious fairly quickly they weren’t the main goal either.
It wasn’t until after the Raptors defeated the Bulls in Chicago for the second time since the Rudy Gay trade that Casey started to throw around the ‘P’ word voluntarily. As recent as 2 weeks ago after the loss to Charlotte in overtime, Casey was still insisting this season was all about developing the young guys – until further notice.
“We are still in the building process,” said Casey before the recent Western Conference road trip. “It is about Terrence Ross, growing him, getting him better. DeMar DeRozan is still a work-in-progress. Jonas Valanciunas is still a work-in-progress. We are still building – still in the improvement process of getting these guys better until further notice.”
“I love the challenge of coaching young players. I enjoy that. I enjoy winning more, but I understand where we are and what we are about in the process of our program.”
At this point Toronto had a record of 3 wins and 2 losses in the post-Rudy Gay era and despite the rather dramatic improvement in ball movement, the run the Raptors were about to embark on was less than obvious. The Raptors Tank Nation still had a reasonable expectation that Ujiri was about to blow the whole thing up for young players and draft picks.
Things were about to change. The Raptors came back from big deficits to defeat the Mavericks and the Thunder on the road and a never-say-die attitude not generally associated with Toronto professional sports teams was becoming apparent.
“Everybody is sacrificing themselves and their game to be a better team,” said Kyle Lowry after the Raptors most recent win.
“Everybody wants the same goal,” Terrence Ross said. “We are all on the same page. That is something we are getting better at.”
Somehow, for some reason, the additions from Sacramento just fit with nearly instant chemistry. Casey established a tight 9-man rotation and the Raptors have rolled with it to an NBA best 8-2 record over the past 10 games.
As the – I am very happy to be here – Greivis Vasquez described after the win over Indiana,
“The guys from Sacramento were desperate. This is just the beginning.
“I am playing a role. I am comfortable because we are winning. I want to win.
“Everybody is happy for the other guy’s success. We have a great locker room.”
Vasquez started every game last season for New Orleans and put up great numbers. This year he started the first 18 games for the Kings, but there is no point guard controversy in Toronto. Vasquez just wants to win. John Salmons has been a starter since 2007, but he is coming off the bench behind a second year player. Patrick Patterson has formed an imposing front court duo with Tyler Hansbrough off the bench – both of whom have a desire to be a bigger part of a team. However, the desire to be a part of a winning program seems to have trumped individual needs.
When the recruits from Sacramento arrived, Casey exclaimed, “We got a bench. We got guys that can come in and at least hold serve or increase the lead.”
More recently, he has been noticing how hard they are pulling for each other.
“We have a bunch of team-first guys pulling for each other, cheering for each other,” Casey said. “Even Greivis was on the bench cheering for Kyle – Kyle was cheering for him. You have to have that if you are a team that is serious about making the playoffs.”
Two teams that define how Casey would like the Raptors to play are Chicago and Indiana. Both clubs play the physical in-your-face style that Casey believes is key to being a contending team. After the second win at the United Center against a Bulls team with Luol Deng, Joakim Noah, Jimmy Butler and Carlos Boozer in the starting lineup, Casey couldn’t hold back that the Raptors were doing what it takes to be a playoff team.
“They stayed with it,” Casey said. “It was a grind it out game. These kind of games are the games you got to play if you are going to be serious about being a playoff team. The toughness, the physicality that you have to play with, I thought Greivis (Vasquez) and also Patrick (Patterson) came in and gave us that type of presence. Also JV (Valanciunas) and Amir (Johnson) gave it to us too in the paint. We have to play with that toughness, that physicality if we are serious about being a playoff team.
“It goes to the physicality. You have to meet their physical force with force if you are serious about winning and we did that and we have to continue to do that and I am not going to let up and I am not going to relent because that is who we are – it’s who you have to be to win in this league.”
After the win against the ‘smash-mouth’ Pacers, Ujiri headed down to the Raptors locker room to talk with his head coach and that was one very upbeat meeting in the hallway. He was witnessing a team that wouldn’t be pushed around. That didn’t deserve the ‘soft’ reputation Toronto had built in the NBA. The Raptors were playing a style of basketball that wasn’t embarrassing.
No one would have believed anyone, if they had claimed the Raptors would go 9-3 after trading Gay for a bench, but that’s the situation Ujiri and Casey find themselves in and it’s a great problem to have. The only problem with success is a team has to keep winning to hold onto that perception, but Casey’s use of the ‘P’ word is very appropriate under the circumstances.