Paroxysm at Gametime merges HP’s usual theoretical and philosophical meanderings with actual game coverage. In our second installment, James Herbert sat down with Raptors coach Dwane Casey before taking in Ricky Rubio’s first appearance at the Air Canada Centre.
“I don’t know if players are ever going to love defense.”
In a single sentence with a simple premise, Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey captured the most basic problem facing every basketball coach. There’s no glamor to be found in a defensive stance, after all, and defense comes with none of the satisfaction of putting a ball through a hoop. But Casey’s job is to teach the Raptors to appreciate defense, even if they’ll never grow to love it.
“I think you have to take pride in it, you have to understand it,” Casey said. “I think you have to love to compete and part of competing is giving yourself to the defensive end as well as the offensive end… It’s more of a competitive culture, a competitive approach.”
Last year’s Raptors did not have a competitive defensive culture or a competitive defensive approach. They finished last in the league in defensive efficiency, and surrendered 112.7 points per 100 possessions. That mark was actually a slight improvement from the year before.
“Last year, their whole approach was an offensive approach and they were scoring big points, exciting, but at the end of the night it was an L,” Casey said, just hours before his team would face off against the Minnesota Timberwolves and force forward Kevin Love into his worst offensive performance since last March.
Coming into its match-up with Minnesota, Toronto was giving up an average of 104.9 per 100 – not elite numbers, but an enormous step forward. There’s more talking, there’s more of a plan, and even though there are still breakdowns and the Raptors still give up penetration too easily, they look better defensively than they have in years. While most of the criticisms levied in prior years were about passivity, this team’s biggest issue is its league-leading foul rate. For Casey, this is a better problem to have.
“I think there are some aggressive mistakes that we’re making,” he said. “Not adjusting to officiating, that’s the thing I see more than anything. I like the aggression; we just have to be smarter with it and not just blatantly put teams in the penalty and let them double us on the free throw line, so that’s where we are right now. For me it’s a lot easier to pull back the reins – I want us to be aggressive, but smart, legally aggressive, moving our feet, bodying cutters, tagging cutters, but without fouling.”
It’s hard to believe this is mostly the same group that missed rotation after rotation last year on its way to 60 losses, but Casey has orchestrated a turnaround without adding a major piece like the one he received at the beginning of the 2010-2011 season as an assistant coach for the Dallas Mavericks.
“In Dallas, we could say, ‘Hey Tyson [Chandler], deliver this message,’ and he’s a great communicator defensively. He’s talking, he’s telling guys where to go. He helped us as coaches hold guys accountable, where to go, what to do defensively. He was the shining star, the anchor,” Casey said. “With us, we don’t have Tyson Chandler, we’ve got our guys… Andrea [Bargnani] is beginning to be that anchor for us, talking, communicating. We want more of that from him but we don’t have that guy right now, so we’ve got to do it more in a team conceptual way more so than relying on an individual to deliver that message.”
You might be shocked that Bargnani, renowned in years past as much for his aversion to help defense as for his sweet shooting, is being discussed as a potential defensive anchor. If so, you’re not alone.
“I found out defensively we have better talent than I thought,” Casey said. “Andrea’s done an excellent job defensively, impacting pick-and-rolls, playing the post, doing the things we need him to do defensively to make an impact on the game, so that’s been a huge surprise – how talented he is, not only on the offensive end, but on the defensive end.”
Against the Timberwolves, Bargnani displayed his two-way talent most effectively midway through the fourth quarter. With the Raptors down by two, Bargnani received an inbounds pass in the right corner. A series of pumpfakes and jab steps later, his defender, Anthony Tolliver, was on his heels. A hard dribble left led him to the rim, where the seven-footer made a twisting reverse layup of which Manu Ginobili would be proud. On the ensuing defensive possession, rookie phenom Ricky Rubio scooted into the middle of the lane for a floater and Bargnani rotated from the left block to send the shot back. Minnesota never regained the lead.
Bargnani had the tools to make these sorts of plays well before Casey’s arrival in Toronto. They just didn’t happen often. “For me as for everybody, the biggest difference is we’re trying to make an extra effort and trying to be more focused about the defense,” he said. “It’s just a mindset that every defensive play, I say, ‘I’m going to do what coach tells me to do’ and everybody knows his role, so we try to do it.”
Post-game, Casey gave him credit for that mindset.
“He did a good job defensively on Love, a good job defensively of chasing around Williams who’s an excellent three-point shooter, and then in the post he did a good job on Milicic,” Casey said. “He was doing a little bit of everything for us.” Casey added that Bargnani has matured, and is playing like an All-Star — on both ends.
Bargnani’s 31 points led an attack that managed 109 points per 100 possessions against a Wolves defense that came in allowing an average of 98.8. It followed a stagnant showing in Philadelphia where Toronto managed a pitiful 62 points in four quarters of basketball, rendering per-possession statistics unnecessary with their futility. For Casey, nights like that remind him that he has to look at the big picture.
“Are there going to be stumbling blocks and ugly nights like the other night? Unfortunately, yes, because that’s part of growing,” he said. “We’re taking two steps forward and one step back – now we’re going to take three steps forward and one step back, maybe four steps forward and one step back.”
The challenge for Casey is the same as for Bargnani: finding a balance between offense and defense. He was brought in to establish a defensive identity and, for players exerting so much more on one end, it’s hard not to lose anything on the other. “It’s not the offense, per se,” Casey said. “It’s guys working harder on the defensive end and having the energy, having the legs to now come and produce on the offensive end.
“Our mission and our goal here is to not be 29th and 30th defensively as we were last year and I promise you we’re going to work every day not to do that,” Casey added. “At the same time, we don’t want to set basketball back 30 years by being a bad offensive team, either.”
Instead of setting basketball back, Casey has brought his team a couple of steps forward more quickly than expected. When Toronto takes a misstep due to inexperience, fatigue, or simply a lack of talent, it shouldn’t surprise. Even if it’s a fairly sizable misstep. Unlike his ex-colleague Rick Carlisle, Casey won’t directly talk about fighting for a playoff spot this season, referring instead to creating a playoff atmosphere and playing a playoff style. Toronto’s early play should be a cause for optimism not because of what it means for the short term, but because it allows us to imagine what it will look like when Casey’s had a couple of seasons to make his mark on the franchise. Casey’s comments ring through when you take a step back: the Raptors have a long way to go, but he knows exactly where he’s taking them.