The Raptors are good as hell. Even when they lose the odd game here or there, it will be important to not lose sight of that. This is the most talented team ever assembled in Toronto, and it won’t last forever. So rather than getting hung up on the things the Raptors do poorly, this column is designed to appreciate the silver linings even when the score line doesn’t favour the good guys. There are only so many games in a season — why not enjoy all 82?
This is What Didn’t Suck for the Raptors’ 106-104 loss to Dwane Casey’s Pistons on Wednesday.
No team ever wants to lose a game. But like a hearty helping of beige root vegetables, sometimes a team with its eyes on peak performance needs to scarf an L down. Whether to encourage a correction of the habits easy winning pecks away at, or to restore equilibrium to the team’s mind and spirit, if you’re the type of team to whom regular season losses don’t really matter — like the Raptors — losing can be a good thing.
Under any other circumstance, Toronto’s third loss of the season — 106-104 to the Pistons on Wednesday — would be one worth getting huffy and puffy over. The 19-point lead squandered, the fourth-quarter in which the offense resembled something circa the 2016 Raptors/Heat series, and the last-second defensive miscue that allowed the game-winning bucket were unpleasant, to say the least. But this wasn’t a normal midweek Raptors game. This was Dwane Casey’s return, where the karmic scales were aching to be re-balanced and the scent of a long-stewing batch of deserved revenge danced through the Scotiabank Arena air.
Look man, you won’t find a Masai Ujiri dissenter here. This summer’s maneuvering, from the firing of Casey to the home run swing for Kawhi Leonard, took guts. These weren’t easy or even popular decisions at the time (it seems people are OK with the Kawhi deal, at least, by now), and Ujiri spoke at length of the emotional toll moving on from two franchise pillars, who also happened to be wonderful human beings, took on him. If Ujiri ever moves on from the NBA team management racket, his charity endeavors will likely be reason number one, followed closely by his desire to no longer wield the power to uproot lives in the interest of building a champion.
As justifiable and painstaking as the DeRozan and Casey decisions were, they brought with them an undeniable twinge of ghoulishness. They were cold, a little icky and in turn set the Raptors franchise up for a confrontation with karmic justice.
That moment of reckoning came on Wednesday, as Casey, whose tailored, open-collar look broadcast to the world a refreshed state of mind, returned to the place he once called home for seven years. His contempt for Ujiri and the unceremonious end to his wildly successful tenure is palpable, and understandable. No Coach of the Year “deserves” to be fired. It’s not Casey’s fault he exists in the era of LeBron James, or that his roster’s limitations imposed a ceiling on the team few coaches could have found a way to poke through. Yet, the team had outgrown the need for a master of the big picture. Nick Nurse offered a fresh look without completely rocking the boat, and promised the type of boundary-testing Casey steered clear from en route to winning a shit load of regular season games. Casey got canned in part because his formula for culture building worked so well it no longer became one of the Raptors’ needs. He has every right to be pissed about getting let go.
So yeah, it was a little heartening to see his new squad pull out the win on Wednesday. Watching his reaction to Reggie Bullock’s game-winner, as his new roster swarmed him in a delightful tizzy, no Raptor fan who spent any time with Casey could feign true disappointment with the result. Most lines of work don’t offer opportunities for tangible revenge against your old employer mere months after an abrupt and unjust parting of the ways. Any one of us would relish the moment Casey experienced on Wednesday night. After all he gave to this city and franchise, he earned that shit. And in a way, the Raptors did too after their selling their souls in the name of championship lust this past summer. The score is now settled, the universe is realigned, and both sides can move on with clean consciences.
Casey’s not the only one for whom the result on Wednesday can be viewed as a good thing.
For Nurse — Toronto’s shiny, new, barely-ever-losing coach — dropping a game to and old mentor should serve as a reminder that he doesn’t yet have everything figured out. Casey, long chided as a sub-par crunch time play architect, drew up a pair of air-tight plays in the closing seconds of the game; one that would have been cash had it not been swatted away by the monster Casey helped create, Pascal Siakam; another that took advantage of the cumbersome Jonas Valanciunas to spring Bullock free for the winner. This fails to even mention the lack of control Nurse seemed to have over the fourth quarter offense, where Leonard seemed determined to pull out the win himself, in the process steering the team away from the free-flowing style Nurse holds dear. That’s the trade you make when you employ someone as good as Leonard. Typically a superstar will light the road to prosperity. On off nights, though, an over-reliance on their sense of direction can get you lost in the forest of repetitive isolation.
For Casey to win at the game Nurse was assumed to be superior at when he landed the job is both ironic and, hopefully, instructive for Nurse moving forward. Reports of the rift between Nurse and Casey have circulated since the summer. But even if they didn’t see eye to eye, Nurse can’t afford to lose sight of the tutelage Casey provided him. It’s a big reason he’s got the job he has today.
There’s even solace to be found in Wednesday’s loss for Ujiri. Seeing Casey gleefully prance on the court after the final buzzer, and observing how earnestly thrilled his players were to snag that win for him, should remind Ujiri that he can be bold, and daring, and toe the line of hurt feelings in the future, knowing that those at the receiving end are going to land on their feet. Under Ujiri, Toronto is no longer the place careers go to die. The Raptors are a model franchise now; model franchises coat their people with an aura. Have-nots will always want a piece of the haves, and the cosmic dust that five-straight playoff appearances and a billion regular season wins spawns has an ages-long half-life. There’s a reason the Pistons snatched Casey up so quickly; San Antonio targeted DeRozan to lead the final years of Coach Pop because of his association with Toronto and its success. Even Patrick Patterson turned his Raps tenure in a fat ass check.
Ujiri may struggle with the toll that tough decisions take on the people he works so closely with. But he can rest easy knowing he’s built an apparatus that will soften any ex-Raptor’s fall. Wednesday’s finish painted that picture for him, clear as day. Casey’s gonna be just fine. And so will the Raptors in the wake of a loss they sort of had coming.