1-on-1 with Raptors’ Casey: This year’s playoffs will be different

Dwane Casey and Bismack Biyombo discuss the importance of not taking the foot off the pedal down the stretch drive, regardless of standings.

Last season, the Toronto Raptors fizzled out of the playoffs. Coach Dwane Casey talked to Sportsnet about why his club has come back fiercer—and playoff-ready.

When you came in, the idea of fans being apprehensive about a Raptors team that won more than 50 regular-season games would’ve sounded insane. How does the growth of the organization—and the expectations around it—look from where you’re sitting now?

Building the program on both ends of the floor has been something we take pride in—developing a culture, a program that the organization and the city can be proud of. If you go out and sign a top-five guy each year you can turn it around quickly, but we’ve done it organically, internally—DeMar DeRozan has developed; we brought Kyle Lowry in, he has grown with the program. We’ve done it the old-fashioned way, the hard way, and I like that, because it’s sustainable—it’s not something where one guy’ll leave and the program will fall apart. But it took a little longer. It’s almost like growing a tree—it takes those roots a little bit longer when you’re doing
it from a baby to now.

Your relationship with Kyle Lowry has been a big part of that growth. How has that relationship changed since last year’s playoff loss? And how has he developed as a player?

Kyle had a commitment to the program from day one. His transformation from where he was physically last year to where he is now shows his commitment to the team. The way he plays, the way he approaches the game, the way he’s such a competitor—it’s contagious. Our guys have taken on his personality on the court. You can see it. The plus-minus tells a story, and also our playing personality changes a little bit when he’s off the floor. Our goal is to maintain that competitive edge and that two-by-four on the shoulder and to keep competing at that high level, even when he’s off the floor.

Last year’s playoff loss felt like a mental collapse as much as a physical or strategic one.

It’s true that we knew exactly what Washington was going to do, what they were doing to us. I go back to health: We weren’t totally healthy. Kyle, being our engine, wasn’t 100 percent healthy. I think we’ve handled that a little bit with bringing Cory [Joseph] in, another bona-fide point guard who can defend and also run the show. But we were a shot away from advancing the first year. People forget that quickly. I go back to when I was in Seattle. We got beat in the first round two years in a row, and the next year we went to the Finals. We don’t want to get embarrassed and swept by any means, but you’re not going to build Rome in a day. The steps we’re taking now have helped that. Our personnel is totally different from last year. I think we’re more playoff-ready, more built for the playoffs.

Why?

Well, physically. Bismack Biyombo is bigger, stronger, and in the playoffs, it’s an ass-kicking contest. The stuff you get away with in the regular season changes in the playoffs. It’s a physical, grinding-type game, and I don’t know if we were equipped for that last year. I think personnel-wise, bringing Cory in, bringing Bismack in, bringing DeMarre [Carroll] in—those types of hard-nosed players—helps your presence in the playoffs.

There are a lot of people making the case for Biyombo to start over Jonas Valanciunas. You’ve also had a lot of young players step up, outperform expectations and maybe earn themselves some unexpected playoff minutes. How do you see that impacting your lineups and who
gets minutes?

The good thing about these guys stepping up is it gives them game experience. But Jonas is our starting centre—that hasn’t changed and it’s not going to change. When we rest guys, that doesn’t mean they lose their starting position. It means we’re strategically getting their body and mostly their mind a rest. But I’m glad to see those guys step up; it builds that trust that when you step in, you can get the job done.

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