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Raptors choke away lead, lose to Pistons 106-104

Despite leading by as many as 19 points in the second half, the Raptors fell apart down the stretch and their former coach Dwane Casey got the last laugh.

NBA: Detroit Pistons at Toronto Raptors John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Nostalgia was at an all-time high on Wednesday night with the Raptors facing off against the Pistons in Toronto. There was Jose Calderon, long-time former Raptor point guard and folk hero, playing a few minutes. Dwane Casey, the longest tenured and most winningest coach in Raptors franchise history, made his much-anticipated first return to Toronto. And the Raptors choked away a 19-point second half lead through poor execution, and a series of late-game breakdowns. Ah, yes, just like old times — the Raptors would go on to lose 106-104 to Detroit.

“Anytime you come back to a place where you spent a lot of time and had so much success,” said Pistons forward Blake Griffin, he of 30 points (on 13-of-22 shooting) and 12 rebounds. “To win Coach of the Year and switch jobs in the same year, it’s tough. I think it meant a lot to [Dwane Casey]. I was proud of the way we came back and responded, and yeah, this was for him, for sure.”

The outcome was quite the cruel twist of fate. The Raptors deposed Casey after a series of post-season collapses. For much of his tenure in Toronto, he was most often criticized for not adjusting fast enough, for not maximizing the team’s personnel, for not finding ways to execute down the stretch — even as the Raptors kept improving overall. Now, some of those problems could be ascribed to a young team still finding its way, but some felt like it should be owned by Casey.

Now in Detroit, Casey has a weaker team, his Pistons are now 7-6, despite the presence of two certified All-Stars in Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond, who had a relatively quiet 11 points (on 5-of-15) and 14 rebounds. A part of him has to be standing on the outside looking at the Raptors, now 12-3 with NBA Finals aspirations, thinking one of two things: that should be me, or more specifically in this context: I want to beat those guys. Well, wish granted.

The Raptors had a few things going for them for much of the game. Most significantly, Kawhi Leonard was playing his efficient brand of machine-like basketball for most of the game’s first three quarters with 19 points on 7-of-13 shooting, plus nine rebounds, four assists, and three steals. He’d finish, however, with just seven more points (26 in total), and six turnovers — including one that cost the Raptors the game. With the game tied at 104, Leonard drove down the wing and somehow just... dribbled it off his foot out of bounds. It’s the kind of play no one would have expected — and yet, there it was. Pistons ball.

“You just gotta laugh at it, learn from it, and move forward,” said a typically terse Leonard. “It happens a lot,” he went on to say about his late turnover. “Me trying to drive hard. It happens to a lot of players. I really don’t count it.”

How the Raptors found themselves in that situation, despite the aforementioned 19-point lead, can be chalked up to a few things. First, the team shot just 4-of-20 (ayo!) from three, with no one on the team hitting more than one shot from deep. To add insult to that particular stat, shortly after Danny Green hit his first three of the game he was injured on a screen and left with back soreness.

Another element working against Toronto was the relatively poor quality of the Raptors’ bench play. The squad was without Serge Ibaka on the night, along with C.J. Miles and Norman Powell, and opted to start Jonas Valanciunas so as to best combat Drummond. For awhile, it worked — mostly because lightly-used Greg Monroe stepped in at centre for 17 points (on 8-of-10 shooting) and nine rebounds, and OG Anunoby put in some solid minutes for seven points, three rebounds, and two assists. The bench was a problem overall though: Fred VanVleet had another bad game, this time going 2-of-8 from the field for four points, plus five assists, Delon Wright was invisible, and Malachi Richardson is just not ready.

“They made a good run,” said Lowry of the Raptors’ gradual slide out of the game. “A couple of possessions, we had some bad offensive possessions, they made like four threes in a row, or four threes that were big, two in the corner, or couple of them, one off a pin-down, a three in the corner actually.

“It was just a tough game for us, tough execution-wise, defensively, offensively. Just didn’t play a good game down the stretch.”

The man selected to replace Casey on the Raptors’ bench, Nick Nurse, didn’t quite have the answers for what went wrong for Toronto either. The numbers (besides their three-point shooting) suggest a solid enough game — the Raptors got to the free throw line more, grabbed more rebounds, shot better from the field overall, put in more points in the paint. (There were even some fun moments of nostalgia, like when Anunoby dunked on Drummond recalling the cocked joint that is to be banged.) But the Raptors went away from the things that had been working — Kawhi-Jonas Valanciunas pick-and-rolls, crisp ball movement, less isolation play — and it cost them. Could Nurse have done something differently? Did he mess up?

“We’d have these 20 point leads,” said Nurse, noting the recent pattern to Toronto’s play. “And cut it back to six and it was really similar pattern to what we’ve seen. In that we just took our foot off the gas a little bit defensively and all of a sudden they’re shooting a couple of wide open threes and that just sparks them.”

In retrospect, we should not have been surprised that a Casey-led team showed no quit right up to the dying seconds. And so now we arrive at the final minute, with the Raptors down four. Kawhi ties it up on a jump shot, has his inexplicable turnover, and the Raptors reel. In the final sequence, Pascal Siakam, who finished with 17 points and seven rebounds, makes a striking swat to break up an alley-oop attempt first. Then the Pistons reset, and that cruel twist of fate arrives to deliver a victory to Detroit.

Go figure a Casey-led team would also execute down the stretch, find the open man, and get a good look. The Raptors were just a step slow as Reggie Bullock swooped in for the winning bucket. Of course, cameras were quick to capture the revenge game celebration.

“He’s still my guy. At the end of the day he’s still my guy,” said Lowry, Casey’s former point guard. “He’s still the guy that helped me get to where I am. He’s an opposing coach. It’s a good win for him, I’m sure he’s happy, but we’re not happy. I’m not happy for him. We should’ve won the game. I wish we would’ve won the game, for me, because I want to win every game.”

As do we, Kyle. As do we.