We're taking the steps," Casey said then. "Probably not as fast as we want to, but we're going to win." At that point, many thought it would take years. After five straight seasons without a playoff berth, tanking for premier prospects seemed logical. Since then, though, the Raptors enjoyed an accelerated ascent, the type of season coaches are never promised. After a slow start and a major trade in December, they clicked. Toronto wound up with the East's third seed and a franchise-record 48 regular-season wins. Its fans became sensations after packing the Air Canada Centre and the square outside of it during a first-round series against the Brooklyn Nets. On Sunday, before the Raptors' first Game 7 since 2001, Casey was asked what he'd have said if he'd been told seven months ago that they'd be in this position. "I would take those odds, and I would probably say you're probably over-medicated," Casey said, laughing.
On Monday, the Raptors’ players expressed a desire to see Casey back. DeRozan and Amir Johnson are the only players who have been on the Raptors since Colangelo hired Casey. The ex-Mavericks assistant came to Toronto preaching defence. “You know if your head coach tells you something, you’re going to listen,” DeRozan said of Casey. “He’s not just saying it just to say it. He’s not going to tell you to do something just to do it. [There] is a reason behind everything. Once you respect a man’s word like that, you’re going to work for him. “No, I never doubted [his message]. I never doubted it [because] he was genuine. Casey’s never been a dude just to say something, just to say it. When he says something, he definitely means it.”
“One thing I respect about Coach Casey, man, he’s been consistent,” DeRozan said. “He’s been the same Dwane Casey since he’s been here. Preached the same thing, told us to stick with the same principles and they’ll work. We did it, and everything he said came together like he said it would. And you gotta respect coach Casey, he never changed up. You could go in his office, knock on his door, talk to him whenever, you could text him. He’s a player’s coach. He’s a great dude. “Sometimes you don’t even look at him like a coach because you could go up to him and talk to Dwane about any situation. I think that’s what helped us a lot.” And what Casey has told the team had led to results, which is a key. “He’s not just saying it just to say it,” DeRozan said. “He’s not going to tell you to do something just to do it. It’s a reason behind everything. Once you respect a man’s word like that, you’re going to work for him.”
It didn’t take long for Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri to take care of an important job. Ujiri and coach Dwane Casey have agreed in principle on a new three-year contract extension that will afford the team a much-needed level of continuity, according to NBA and Toronto sources. Terms of the deal, which could be officially announced as early as Tuesday when Ujiri and Casey hold their end-of-season media sessions, were not available.
"You could go in his office, knock on his door, talk to him whenever, you could text him," he continued. "He's a player's coach. He's a great dude. Sometimes you don't even look at him like a coach because you could go up to him and talk to Dwane about any situation. I think that's what helped us a lot."
Casey's ability to not only survive in this position but thrive is unique in the NBA landscape, as he was not hired by Toronto's current front-office head, Masai Ujiri, yet managed to convince his new boss of his worth while leading the way in the most unexpected of Raptors' seasons.
“I want to be happy, I want to win,” Lowry said. “But it’s something that me and my agent, we have yet to talk about. But I know I want to win, and that’s important to me. “The way the culture is around the team [is also important]. This culture around here is unbelievable, from top to bottom. My job is not to build a team. My job is to play. Masai will do a great job, I’m sure of it, and he’ll do the things it needs to take to get the team to the next level.” On purpose, Lowry was vague. Free agency is about leverage, and he does not necessarily have much to work with. There are not a lot of teams with room under the salary cap this summer and a need at point guard. Logically, there is not a huge market for Lowry, although the Lakers could change that if they decide to pursue him. All it takes is one seriously interested team, and the Raptors will lose their power in negotiations. However, it is possible Lowry will not make it overly difficult on the Raptors.
Confident in his craft, he has time to pay attention to people. He sends inspirational texts to his players and staff nearly daily. He freely admits they can be a bit corny, but he believes in their spirit and they open up a line of communication, as every text sent is an opportunity to get one back. “He’s never changed up,” said DeRozan. “You could go in his office, knock on his door, text him, whatever. He’s a player’s coach. He’s a great dude. You could go up and talk to him about any situation. I think that’s what helped us a lot.” The timing of the news was moderately surprising but perhaps not, given Ujiri and Casey are scheduled to have press conferences to look back on the season that was and look ahead to next year Tuesday morning. Getting the deal out of the way saved a lot of awkward questions.
Lowry is not worried about all of the negatives outsiders always seem to attach to playing in Toronto. “If you build a winning franchise, it’s a little different — when you win. All of those things, taxes and that stuff, it matters. At the same time, if you’re winning, it’s cool. You’ll figure it out. It’ll be OK,” he said. Lowry admitted that sharing a backcourt with a star and a friend he considers a brother, in DeMar DeRozan, means a lot to him. “Yeah. To play with a guy who is an all-star, play with a guy that’s learning to do it in both ends of the floor, why wouldn’t you want to play with that? Why wouldn’t you want to be on a team with a guy like that? If you go around the league and find a guy like that, you want to play with him,” Lowry said. For his part, DeRozan wouldn’t even entertain the notion that Lowry might not be back. “I’m not worried about that at all, it will all work itself out,” DeRozan said when it was his turn at the podium.
"At the end of the day, it's still a business and you have to be a businessman for the situation that you're in," he said, "but I am very happy. This has been one of the best seasons I've had, through and through. Best coaches, teammates, [front office]. It's been great. I am happy. Without a doubt, I can say I'm happy." While money and the terms of his next deal should play a big part in the negotiation process that will take place in roughly two months, it's hard to put a price on happiness. That's something that any other suitor may have difficulty matching. Finally, in his eighth NBA season, Lowry started to scratch the surface of what many believed had been there all along. Only, it very nearly played out at Toronto's expense. "We knew if we lost [after the Rudy Gay trade] it was going to get blown up," Lowry wisely pointed out. "That's just the fact that, once we made the trade, if we would have lost a little more, I probably wouldn't be sitting here today, just being honest." As it turned out, the Raptors were his perfect storm. For the first time, he was entrusted to lead a team without looking over his shoulder or pretending to be something he's not. He came to training camp with a rejuvenated approach, in the best shape of his playing career.
Lowry has an on-court presence DeRozan can learn from. He is all fight. He is all effort. He is all heart. Sometimes he pushes too hard. But that’s a whole lot better than the opposite of not pushing hard enough. Their games are remarkably different, but each takes something from the other. What happens to DeRozan if Lowry isn’t a Raptor? What happens to his high-risk game? All of this needs to be considered by Ujiri, who can’t sign Lowry until July. Those are the rules of the NBA. Lowry has played this free agency thing right down the middle, probably on the advice of his agent, Andy Miller. In this, Lowry has played the part of good client. Never once did he say he was leaving. Never once did he say he was staying (except what he might have said to his giggling teammate DeRozan). He talks about loving his team, his coach, his time in Toronto. “The city is awesome,” Lowry said on Monday. “It’s very difficult,” he said of free agency. “But at the end of the day, it’s still a business and you have to be a businessman. I’m very happy (here). This is one of the best seasons I’ve had (it’s actually his best). “Best coaches, teams, upstairs, you know. I am happy, without a doubt I can say I’m happy.” Translation: Show me the money.
The core group of the Raptors that along with JV includes DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry, Terrence Ross, and Amir Johnson have developed a strong relationship both on and off the court, something the Lithuanian feels would be huge if the team returned for next season, likening the group to more than just teammates, a family. “I think we did a good job this year to start, we built the start. We got to keep doing that, and go next year even further. Keep hard working, keep same attitude, we can do it,” said a confident Valanciunas. “This group of guys was really good, there wasn’t just a team, there was family members. So it’s very important to keep the same attitude, keep the same way in the locker room.”
“My whole mentality changed,” he said. “By December, beginning of January, I was like, ‘I’ve got a great opportunity to prove myself and get back to what I was in this league’. I thought they gave me an unbelievable opportunity.” Though the fourth-year guard went from starting in Sacramento and New Orleans to coming off the bench for the Raptors, the desire to win and to establish a home and an identity again trumped everything else. “Toronto really changed my life,” he said. “It actually recuperated my career because I was very down. I was sad. “So hopefully everything works out. I want to come back. I love Toronto. I love this city. I love this country. I want to be back.”
“Throughout my years in the NBA, this is something I’ve never seen before. Just to see the whole country and the city come together like that is very inspirational. It just makes you hungrier to get there again, to do it for them. I felt like we have the best fans in the world, to see everybody come out. It’s an unbelievable feeling to have that support behind you,” he said. Johnson said he thinks this might have been the best Raptors team ever, better even than the Vince Carter-led squads. He added that despite only having a year left, “I’m going to keep doing my regular summer program, keep working to get better. Come back next season, nothing really changes for me.” Johnson added that he’ll be doing his usual traveling (to at least four different places) and might even try riding a camel.
On paper, a No. 3 seed was upset by a No. 6 seed. Anyone who was paying attention this season knows better than to read too much into that. No one expected the Raptors to be a No. 3 seed. They played some of the best basketball in the league after trading Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings. They proved they have a formidable young core that should only grow more potent in time. All the same, no one associated with this franchise is going to be satisfied with first-round exits. They can do better, and they will do better. Much will be up to Casey. Now that he knows what he has to work with, his first priority will be improving the club's chemistry and developing its younger pieces. The rest of the burden falls on general manager Masai Ujiri. Though he isn't expect to make any epic moves this summer, he'll face some decisions all the same.