Halfway through a trying NBA season and Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey is still trying to discover the proper lineup to close out games.
Following an impressive 108-103 victory on Sunday over the Los Angeles Lakers – a game in which Toronto for once did not squander a big lead – Casey feels he has a better handle on what players he should have on the court when the clock is winding down.
For the time being, at least.
"Again, having the closing team out on the basketball court is what we're still searching for," Casey said on Monday after the Raptors practised at the Air Canada Centre. "I thought we got it [on Sunday]. So we've got to continue to develop a closing mentality."
After watching a 19-point lead dwindle to just 10 over a two-minute span in the fourth quarter against the Lakers, Casey sent point guard Jose Calderon into the game in place of Kyle Lowry with just under 51/2 minutes to play. About three minutes later, with Toronto's lead 101-94, DeMar DeRozan subbed in for rookie Terrence Ross. Along with Amir Johnson, Alan Anderson and Landry Fields, this group fended off the Lakers and snapped Toronto's losing steak at four games.
The Raptors' record at the season's midway point is 15-26, but they are not the horror show they were to begin the year, losing 19 of their first 23 games.
Since then, despite a rash of injuries – including the loss of seven-footers Andrea Bargnani and Jonas Valanciunas – Toronto has gone 11-7. That leaves Toronto in 11th place overall in the Eastern Conference, 51/2 games out of the eighth and final playoff spot held by the Boston Celtics heading into play on Monday.
The Raptors have a formidable challenge in front of them, playing the Eastern-leading Heat in Miami in the first game of a back-to-back on Wednesday, then taking on the Magic in Orlando on Thursday. Toronto then returns home to face the Cleveland Cavaliers in a rare Saturday-night engagement at the Air Canada Centre.
Casey said he is generally pleased with his team's progress in recent weeks.
"We got off to a rough start," he said. "Our start really hurt us. We had opportunities to win some games, didn't close out games. But I thought we came together as a team and grew and the process continued and we got better. Even in the last couple of weeks, we lost those three or four games in a row, I felt we were playing good basketball."
Against the Lakers on Sunday, Casey said he was pleased with the "basketball decisions" his players made in the stretch run, and that they didn't appear nervous about making a mistake.
"Not letting the ball stick, catching it and moving it, catching and driving, catching and shooting it," is how Casey described it. "And making the right reads. Defensively I thought we dug in and got stops."
Players such as the hard-nosed Anderson have helped Toronto's cause. His performance in recent games has picked up now that Casey has more or less settled on playing him in the second rotation at his natural wing position.
Anderson had 14 points and eight rebounds off the bench against the Lakers. He was also in the middle of an altercation with L.A. big man Dwight Howard toward the end of the second quarter. The scuffle resulted in double technicals for both players and Howard's ejection from the game.
Anderson can annoy opponents with his aggressive style, but he said it is not a reputation he cultivates.
"I just play hard, whether it gets under their skin or not," he said. "I don't control that. I just control what I do. And when I play hard, some guys don't like when you play hard. Some guys can handle it. Whether they can handle it or not, that's up to them."