No matter how many wins this Raptors group produces in the season’s final four, regardless of opponent in the NBA’s opening round, nothing will be gained if stops aren’t made, if rotations aren’t executed, if a mind-set does not change. “If we haven’t taught defence by now, we shouldn’t be coaching,’’ began Casey on Thursday following his team’s workout. “It’s a mind-set right now, it’s a focus.” Casey has been around the NBA block long enough to know how players and teams go about their business this time of the basketball calendar, a time when ballers are playing for contracts, when teams heading to the draft lottery are auditioning players for next year. Only the few elite sustain their level of play, playing a championship-calibre defence devoid of slippages.
Thanks in large part to a soft schedule and their improved efficiency on offence, they are finding ways to pull out games that they have probably deserved to lose. In that way, progress has been made, as Raptor teams of the past would universally find creative and increasingly frustrating ways to squander winnable games. The red flag is routed in their recent slippage on defence, Dwane Casey’s bread and butter. With the postseason around the corner, Casey knows that mental and physical toughness is about to become more important than ever. He can’t help but be concerned with what he’s seen. “If we haven’t taught defence by now we shouldn’t be coaching,” he said following a Thursday afternoon practice session. “It’s a mindset right now, it’s a focus. It’s this time of year throughout the league, it’s an epidemic.”
The Raptors have yearned for that type of stability for years now. June 2004 was the last time a general manager and coach ascended to their positions at roughly the same time for the Raptors, when Rob Babcock and Sam Mitchell landed those jobs, respectively. Last year, it was clear that general manager Bryan Colangelo and Casey, the Raptors’ coach, disagreed on some rather essential points. This year, it seemed like a lock for that pattern to continue. Colangelo was removed as general manager, replaced by Masai Ujiri, who was emboldened with a five-year contract. Ujiri retained Casey, but did not extend his contract, which ends after this season. The situation still looked like a petri dish capable of growing more organizational dysfunction. Yet, there was Casey on Wednesday, punctuating a four-game winning streak by harping on the Raptors’ diminished defence. He has continued to coach to his beliefs, and the players have not sensed any interference from above.
Johnson proved yet again Thursday night just how much he loves the fans who support him and his teammates, by throwing 70 of them a party at knight-themed dinner show Medieval Times. “It’s just a token of appreciation for my fans because we have the greatest fans in the world,” Johnson said before the show began, a black velvet cape trimmed with gold threads and sparkles draped around his hulking frame. “The fans are what makes our team.” It’s not the first time Johnson’s given back to his fans. This is the fourth year in a row that he’s thrown his “I Roll with Amir” party. And last September, he handed out free copies of Drake’s newest album to fans at Yonge and Dundas. He picked Medieval Times for this year’s party because he has fond memories of coming to the show as a child. “It looked a lot bigger when I was a kid,” said Johnson, now six-foot-nine.
The NBA issued Raptors guard Kyle Lowry a warning for flopping on Thursday. Lowry’s flop occurred in the second quarter of Toronto’s 125-114 home victory over Philadelphia on April 9. With a little under six minutes remaining before halftime and Toronto leading 50-45, Lowry fell backwards to the court while attempting to take a charge. Elliot Williams pushed the ball up in transition and Lowry prepared himself for contact outside the protected circle. Instead of being run down, though, Lowry slowly drifted backwards to the court because the collision never took place. Williams was able to twist his way around Lowry before laying off a pass to Thaddeus Young. No foul was called on the play.
Hypothetical situations — like how a team would perform with Player X on them — are nearly impossible to predict, but it’s clear Lowry could have helped the Knicks. How much? They’d be playing meaningful games right now, likely with a playoff seed sewn up. Perhaps they could have even found their point guard for the next few years if Lowry re-signed this summer. Would a very good point guard and a playoff spot convince Carmelo Anthony to stay in New York? Would it be worth giving up a pick and a young wing player? All tough questions to answer, but nonetheless interesting to hypothesize when looking at how this season turned out.