To prepare his players for the biggest game of their lives, Raptors coach Dwane Casey borrowed from the 2011 NBA champion Dallas Mavericks.
“I go back to my experience. (Mavericks coach) Rick Carlisle has a thing, ‘Wipe off the blackboard. Just wipe it off,“’ said Casey, an assistant under Carlisle on that 2011 Mavs squad. “Nothing on the blackboard is really going to make a difference at this time of year. At this game, Game 7, it’s mental.”
The Raptors host the Brooklyn Nets on Sunday in a game that will either advance them into the second round of the post-season for just the second time in the franchise’s 19-year history, or send them home.
Sunday’s winner faces the two-time NBA defending champion Heat in the Eastern Conference semifinals beginning Tuesday in Miami.
By wiping the blackboard, Casey trusts the Raptors that have scraped and clawed to so many huge wins in this unexpected season of success won’t go down without a fight Sunday. The coach likens his team to Freddie Krueger — the unkillable villain from “A Nightmare on Elm Street” movies and a name Casey has mentioned after virtually every unlikely victory this season.
“It’s our approach,” Casey said Saturday. “It’s our toughness. It’s our persistence on getting open. Our persistence in defending. Our persistence in going for loose balls, rebounds. That’s what this game is going to be about.”
Casey had the Raptors at the Air Canada Centre for a long session Saturday, the morning after a woeful 97-83 loss to the Nets in Game 6 at Brooklyn.
In a series that has been feisty since before the first ball was even thrown up, Nets centre Andray Blatche fired the latest shot Saturday night.
“We guarantee we’re going to go there and take care of business and go to Miami,” Blatche told reporters at Barclays Center.
The Raptors shrugged off the comment.
“I don’t care what he said,” said Raptors all-star DeMar DeRozan. “He can say what he wants, honestly. He can go out there and say he’s going to hit the lottery tomorrow, I could give a hell.”
Raptors backup guard Greivis Vasquez added: “I don’t know who does he think he is. He’s not KG (Kevin Garnett) or Paul Pierce or Jason Kidd. We’re not going to listen to his nonsense. He’s gotta earn that, and he hasn’t yet.”
Vasquez said the Raptors are focused only on themselves, and with good reason. They could have closed out the series Friday night, but instead slogged out to their worst opening quarter of the series Saturday night, and trailed by as much as 26 points.
Once again, Casey showed his players video footage of the bouncing and cheering mass of fans that turned out to watch the game at Maple Leaf Square.
“This is what you’re playing for,” Casey told them.
While the vastly-inexperienced Raptors battled nerves early on in the quarter-final series, Casey would have liked to have seen some Friday night.
“I wanted nerves in the first quarter because we came out like we were in never-never-land,” the coach said. “We want the passion. We want the feelings. I don’t mind nerves because a couple of times up and down the floor you get hit, you get knocked down, those nerves go away.
“We’ve just got to come out with a stronger constitution out of the locker-room.”
DeRozan, who has shone in his first-ever play appearance, said there’s more pressure on the Nets. Brooklyn assembled a star-studded squad with its sights set on an NBA title, signing all-stars Pierce and Garnett in the off-season.
“Yeah, man. We ain’t got no 100 million, whatever payroll they got,” DeRozan said — the figure is actually US$180 million-plus with payroll and taxes. “Hey, that’s all on them. At the end of the day they have more to lose than us.”
The Raptors know that this season will be considered a success even if they don’t make it to the second round. They were all but written off when the season began, and played to the low expectations until the blockbuster seven-player deal in December that sent Rudy Gay to Sacramento.
The turnaround was remarkable. They went on to win their second Atlantic Division title, earning the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference.
The players — the majority of whom had little to no playoff experience when this series began — are soaking up every moment of their post-season run.
“Honestly, this is what you live for, man — to play and be in moments like this, honestly, because they last forever,” DeRozan said. “Memories like that are going to last way after I’m finished playing so you’ve definitely got to take advantage of it and understand you’ve got to go out there and play you’re A-game.”
Vasquez was asked how exciting it is to play a Game 7 at home.
“See, that’s the best question,” he replied. “That’s the best question. We’re in a position right now to really make a solid push and then shut everybody up. You don’t have to talk about our experience or anything like that, we’re going to get it done.
“This is what you dream about. That’s when you go play at the park, you think about Game 7 against those guys. It’s just fun.”
Chuck Hayes, acquired in the Sacramento trade, has played in two Game 7s with the Houston Rockets. The Rockets lost them both, and he talked to the team about playing with that win-or-go-home urgency and energy.
“You should be exhausted by the time the game is over with,” Hayes said. “You should be exhausted every timeout because the intensity is going to be risen, the atmosphere, everything. You probably won’t even be able to hear yourself think. It’s a fun experience though.”
DeRozan, who likes to go to the Air Canada Centre to shoot baskets late at night, said he planned to head home after practice Saturday and have a nap. He’d then watch Friday night’s Game 6 again, and “get mentally ready for (Sunday).”
Vasquez, a father of two children, said he would spend Saturday night relaxing with his family to take his mind off the game.
“I don’t really like thinking about the game, like ‘Ahhh,’ putting so much pressure on myself,” he said. “I think when you relax and let the game come to you — obviously, you focus, you get your rest, you watch other NBA games — that’s the way I do it.
“I’m not going to lie, it’s a big game. I’ve been in a Game 7 before to go in the conference finals and that was one of the best experiences I ever had. And (Sunday), I know for sure it’s going to be the best game of my life.”