Dwane Casey can be forgiven if he feels as if he's been coaching short-handed all season, and in this instance, it has nothing to do with Andrea Bargnani's absence due to injury.
The NBA lockout not only resulted in a sometimes uncomfortable compression of training camp and regular season, labour negotiations also robbed the first-year Toronto Raptors coach of summer access to his players. Contact was not permitted, through the threat of a hefty fine.
"Couldn't touch 'em," Casey said, shrugging. Normally, Casey added, he would visit one-on-one during the summer with each of his players, in a more relaxed environment around their families and maybe even work out with the player. "Sweat with them a bit," he said.
For that reason, Casey must have wondered how DeMar DeRozan would react to being benched in the fourth quarter on Tuesday. DeRozan took to Twitter with his sentiments, later saying he was upset more at the tone of the Raptors' play than his own situation. As Ron Wilson can tell you, simply possessing the "whip and the chair" isn't enough if you don't know how to use it, or more importantly when not to use it. Casey's only access to the Raptors' players, for the most part, has been as teacher or strategist. It's been all business, all hurly-burly and pushing and pulling and prodding.
What Casey can't say is that DeRozan is the player he can't lose this season. So it's interesting to see how DeRozan responded; the next night, he scored 21 points in a 95-84 win over the New Orleans Hornets. Friday, in a 102-99 loss to the Memphis Grizzlies, DeRozan was held to four points, but set some tough screens at the end of the game. "Winning plays," Casey called them.
Sunday, in an 83-75 win over the Golden State Warriors, DeRozan was 9-for-17 from the field – his first four baskets were with the Warriors all over him – and 6-for-6 from the line, and along with Jerryd Bayless, picked up pressure on the Warriors' guards in the second half.
The Warriors finished without any fast-break points and were 4-for-19 from three-point range, including 1-for-7 in the third quarter. The first item on the white board in the Raptors' locker room spoke to the Warriors' three-point proficiency. "Closeout to touch," it read. "#4 NBA 3FG%/#6 3FGA."
"Memphis was about protecting the paint. Tonight, it was the three-point line," Casey said, noting that DeRozan's defence came on a night of cross matchups – DeRozan had to find Monta Ellis to guard, while being guarded himself by Brandon Rush.
So the 12-25 Raptors took another step forward defensively. It's been like that most of the season, really, with the Raptors' biggest improvement under their own basket.
Last season, they were last in the NBA in points in the paint, giving up 47.4 a game. The Raptors went into Sunday's game leading the NBA with 35.9 points allowed. Going into Sunday's game, the Raptors were 17th in the NBA in opponent's shooting percentage at 48.7 per cent. That's down from 52.9 per cent in 2010-11, when they were dead last.
It is true that the level of play in the NBA hasn't been up to par due to the lockout. Still, they're all playing the same game, and the Raptors, who had 31 losses by double-digit margins in 2010-11, have 10 this season, and they haven't suffered a double-digit setback since they were pasted 100-64 by the Boston Celtics on Feb. 1.
Casey is focused on execution, on seeing as many "winning plays" as possible even in the games the Raptors lose. He's hoping the process becomes second nature the rest of the way and that it sets the stage for next season, not to mention some quality time with his players this summer.