From Game 1 through Game 62, Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey has remained true to his mantra of defence first, above all else.
As the truncated 2011-12 NBA regular-season draws to a conclusion – the Raptors (22-40) played their second-last home game of the season Monday night, dropping a 109-87 decision to the Atlanta Hawks (36-25) at the Air Canada Centre – it is clear the players have bought in.
And as much as some fans will decry Toronto’s improvement this year, as it will probably mean a higher pick in the June draft for the non-playoff bound team, Casey will never allow an ease-up mindset to infiltrate his locker room, even now with just four games left to play.
“Don’t make your reservations for the summer yet,” Casey intoned before the game, as if his players needed any more warning not to think that far ahead.
Even heading into the Atlanta game, with nothing really at stake, you could tell that Casey was itching to get starting point guard Jose Calderon back into the lineup.
But Calderon’s right eye is still looking like he went the distance in a middleweight bout after getting cut for three stitches in the game against the Philadelphia 76ers on April 11 and had missed Toronto’s two previous outings.
“We’re not shutting him down,” Casey said. “He’s still going to be in uniform. If need be we’d use him but it’s going to be a 9-1-1 because I don’t want to take a chance of him getting hit in his eye again making him even better looking than he is.”
As a result, Casey once again cobbled a starting lineup together that included two NBA Development League escapees in Alan Anderson, who started at small forward, and Ben Uzoh, who filled in for Calderon at the point.
This one got away from Toronto in the third quarter, where the Raptors were outscored 25-17 that allowed the Hawks, who lost to Toronto last Sunday in Atlanta, a 79-68 advantage heading into the fourth.
The Raptors had nothing in the tank to mount any sort of comeback.
Ivan Johnson led the Hawks with 21 points off the bench while DeMar DeRozan countered with 22 for Toronto, his third consecutive game scoring 20 or more.
With Casey at the helm in his first season, the defensive improvement with the Raptors has been dramatic.
Heading into the Atlanta game, the Raptors were ranked among the most improved defensive teams in the NBA –12th in points allowed a game (94.3) and ninth in opponent field goal percentage (.438).
The Raptors have increased their defensive efficiency from 110 points per 100 possessions a year ago, dead last in the NBA, to 102 points this season, good for 15th overall.
Even Casey has been surprised by that.
“I expected us to be around 25 or so by now,” Casey said. “I didn’t think we’d make that big a jump in Year 1.”
And although the Raptors have ensured themselves of finishing with a better winning percentage than last year – even if they don’t win another game this year – Casey said the goal from the start was never to improve on last year’s win total of 22.
“My main thing is continuing the culture,” Casey said. “I think we’ve done that. No matter what happens from here on out we’ve accomplished the goals set out this year – changing the culture, becoming defensive minded, improving players.”