The Raptors couldn't beat the Heat but as they have all season, the Dinos hung tough with a much more talented club. And for that, RaptorsHQ thinks it's time we shower a little bit of praise on the club's coach, Mr. Dwane Casey.
At 17 and 35, the Toronto Raptors are hardly an elite NBA team.
Hell, they're bad enough that recently a debate, albeit a slightly ridiculous one, has sprung up in regards to the Dinos being able to vanquish the top rated NCAA club, the Kentucky Wildcats.
If you asked the casual sports fan, I'm sure their take on the team would include descriptions like "awful, not worth the time and effort to watch, and definitely not worth paying to see."
But the truth is, this Raptors' team has hardly been the Charlotte Bobcats. In fact their current pace puts them two wins ahead of where I thought they'd be at this point in the season, and that projection was made without factoring in any of the various injuries and personnel changes the team's had to go through this year.
In fact, shouldn't this club be a lot worse?
Indeed you are what your record is but this is a team that's played 23 games that have been decided by eight points or less. That means 45 per cent of their matches have come down only a few possessions and while most of those yes, have ended up in losses, it speaks volumes as to the work new coach Dwane Casey has done with what is essentially the same lineup as last season's 22 win group.
Wednesday night's win in Denver only drove the point home even further. Here was Dwane Casey, going to battle minus James Johnson and Jerryd Bayless, had DeMar DeRozan returning for the first time since tweaking his ankle, and thanks to the trade of Leandro Barbosa, was forced to thrust recent call-ups Alan Anderson and Ben Uzoh into 26 minutes of combined action!
And yet the club came out with a win thanks to a complete team effort, out-working the Nuggets for the W, the Raptors' 17th on the season.
This is what Casey has been able to do all year, even minus key players like Andrea Bargnani, Jose Calderon and the aforementioned Bayless for long stretches. He's gotten a rag-tag group of "could be's" and made them look like "will be's" as players such as James Johnson and Jerryd Bayless have suddenly begun to live up to their draft-day expectations under his watch.
Not only that, but despite the losses, he's gotten a historically inept defensive group to buy into the "Pounding the Rock" philosophy, something that has been echoed in terms of huge gains in various defensive statistics. The Raptors are 15th in the league in defensive efficiency, a category they placed dead last in the past two seasons, and are currently on pace to post their fifth best defensive rating in franchise history.
It's interesting to note that two of the defensive ratings that were superior to this version of the Raps, were owned by Toronto clubs that made the playoffs in those respective seasons. So if the Raps can improve on their offensive efficiency next season and bring in some more talent...
Well...let's not get ahead of ourselves yet.
The point here is that while there isn't any talk about Dwane Casey in terms of "coach of the year" consideration, there's no doubt in my mind that he should be in the mix. Maybe he hasn't been on a Tom Thibodeau or Scott Brooks level in terms of wins, or even Doug Collins and Rick Adelman in terms of surpassing expectations, but has there been another coach this year who's gotten more out of his troops? Remember, this is essentially the same team that won only 27 per cent of its games last year, and got blown out on many an occasion. There have been a few nights where the team failed to show up at all (see Jan 7's 35 point loss to Philly, or the 105 to 86 thrashing the Pistons gave the Raps earlier this month), but overall, the club simply doesn't quit. Yes, lacklustre first quarters have haunted them all season, but in most cases by the time the fourth quarter rolls around, the club is right back in the game.
Last night's loss to Miami was another example of this. The Raptors got down big early, but closed the quarter with a nice run to get within four points, and by the time the fourth quarter rolled around, it was a tie game.
The game eventually got away from Toronto as Miami's superior talent won out, but with Casey, you get the feeling that the team has a fighting shot at winning each and every time they step on the court.
Unfortunately, that's not something I ever felt with Jay Triano or Sam Mitchell for that matter.
In fact if there's one thing that Raptors' fans can take solace in this season, I'd argue it's not the possibility of a top lottery pick but Casey's performance. I've never been one to put much stock in coaching in terms of being a difference maker at the NBA level, I tend to think that outside of the Tom Thibodeau's and Greg Popovich's, most coaches have about the same impact on their teams, something that's been reinforced through various studies.
But I'm happy to be wrong in the case of Mr. Casey.
Any way you stack things up, this club has exceeded expectations, and that's not even touching on individual player results, like the baffling emergence of Andrea Bargnani.
How else can you explain this transformation, other than "a heavy dose of Casey?"
It's certainly not an extra serving of Primo Pasta.
We've seen the impact Casey has had on this roster from Andrea Bargnani to recently, Gary Forbes and therefore as I gaze across a team littered with D-League flotsam and minimum NBA salary jetsam I can't help but think:
"Just wait until he gets some more talent to work with..."