TORONTO – Dwane Casey is a kind and gentle man, in person and in spirit.
But that’s not all he is.
Detroit Pistons point guard Ish Smith has seen almost every side of the NBA – the nine-year veteran has played for 10 teams and more coaches and on good teams and bad.
With that perspective, he has quickly come to appreciate Casey, his new head coach.
He’s been a welcome change from the norm.
“Coach Casey has this calming effect. He knows it’s a journey, it’s a long process. You don’t win the East in half a season,” said Smith before the Pistons took on the Raptors in a much-hyped early-season grudge match Wednesday night. “But he knows it’s a journey and I think we’re getting it.”
But Smith stops short when you go too far down the “nice-guy Casey” road. There’s more to him than that. The man worked in a coal mine. He grew up in the segregated south. He’s a history lesson in a nice suit.
“He’s got a little toughness in him,” said Smith, admiringly. “… I remember coming up here in 2010, 2011 and you could hear pin drop. He kind of developed it, built it with Kyle [Lowry] and DeMar [DeRozan] and you have to have a little grit, a little fight, a little toughness to do that.
“Don’t let the sweet persona fool you. Behind the scenes, Coach is a fighter.”
That’s the backdrop against which to properly assess an unprecedented night at Scotiabank Arena; Casey’s first visit to Toronto since he was unceremoniously fired for the sin of not being able to beat LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
It was his fight that was on display as Casey grinded every minute of the game. He took no plays off. He never does.
His reward? A buzzer-beating 106-104 win where Casey drew up not one but two out-of-bound plays in the final seconds of a tie game. The final basket capped off a 19-point second-half comeback against the team that sent him packing and against his former assistant hired in part to be an improvement on Casey’s in-game decision-making.
Perfect, really. The guy so often questioned for not being strong in the tense final moments of NBA chess matches knocked over the king on his home court.
“You get criticized for a lot of things,” said Casey afterwards. “People have their own perception. The perception (of me) is ‘he’s a communicator, he’s a hard worker, he’s a grinder,’… (people) saying ‘He can’t do this, he can’t make decisions, he can’t do that.’ I just smile at it.”
If you don’t think Casey wanted to come to Toronto – the city where he raised his family and his son nurtured an appreciation for Timbits, and where he found a value system consistent with his own “do unto others” beliefs – and stick it to everyone remotely associated with the chain of events that saw him named coach of the year and setting every coaching mark the Raptors have and then being fired, well then you don’t know Casey.
The chill between him and Nick Nurse – the former assistant who won the competition for his job in Toronto – is real, and Casey wasn’t interested in thawing it during the build-up. Few can slip in the knife with a glint in his eye as well as Casey, his country stylings disguising his edge:
“Changes, I don’t know about changes,” he said before the game when asked about what he saw his former protégé was doing differently with the Raptors “I’d say the additions of [Kawhi] Leonard and Danny Green have been great … two starters on a championship team, defenders. Those are the additions more so than changes because I see the same plays that we ran the last four, five years being run. Not a lot of changes from that standpoint.”
Casey was itching for a fight. It’s his way, always simmering beneath the good manners, folksy sayings and calm demeanour.
Does he feel like his firing was unfair, coming off a franchise-record 59-win season, five straight playoff appearances and the best winning percentage in the conference over that period?
Well, yes he does.
“I understand what happened, how it happened,” he said. ”I don’t know why it happened.”
As for the ongoing distance between him and Nurse?
Try this on for size: After decades trying to earn respect for his coaching acumen, after fighting through what he perceived as a stigma early in his career – that young, black assistant coaches were more important for player relations or recruiting than for their technical abilities – here was his assistant coach, the one he brought into the NBA, getting the bulk of the credit for Toronto’s offensive makeover last year, and leveraging that into a job where he takes over a 59-win team that adds Leonard and Green after he signs his contract.
And that after it all went down, as messy as it inevitably was, there was no public or private acknowledgement from Nurse – a thank you; a call seeking blessing, any of that.
That could simply be Nurse feeling awkward in an impossibly awkward situation, and after time passes it gets harder to find the right time to say or do anything. Who hasn’t been there?
So you can understand Casey’s frustration, though it’s not Nurse’s problem and it’s not Raptors president Masai Ujiri’s. And Casey has a $35-million contract and a worthy coaching challenge with the Pistons to keep him occupied.
Understandably in Casey’s first visit to his old place of employment, he coached like a man on a mission – same old, same old, in other words.
It was an uphill battle.
Early on Leonard was effortlessly efficient on his way to 26 points and nine rebounds on 18 shots before stumbling with five turnovers in the fourth quarter. Prior to that he was as dominant a force as you can be. In the first quarter as he notched 11 points on five shots while grabbing five rebounds, adding two assists and grabbing two steals in just over nine minutes. Lowry (14 points, seven assists) was playing comfortably and in control. Pascal Siakam and Jonas Valanciunas – players who grew immeasurably under Casey – combined for 31 points on 24 shots. With Serge Ibaka out with a sore knee the Raptors had the luxury of dusting off little-used Greg Monroe for a season-high 21 minutes at centre and were rewarded with 17 points and nine rebounds.
The Raptors are a better team than the Pistons, who can only rely on Blake Griffin (30 points, 12 rebounds) to win his matchup. It’s slim pickings after that, unless you count Andre Drummond – the talented big whose primary sin is playing in the wrong decade.
That didn’t stop Casey from trying. He spent nearly every minute of the game out of his seat on the visitors’ bench – the end of the floor that felt so foreign to him after 320 wins on the York Street (east) side of the floor. The Pistons trailed at the half by 12 and 19 early in the third quarter and it was an 11-point game with 9:31 to play.
But Casey didn’t coach the scoreboard. He gestured and pointed and got in a defensive stance and he hollered.
He coached his butt off. He always does.
His team responded as it often does in Toronto.
“We were 19 down and didn’t give up, didn’t stop scrapping, didn’t give in,” he said. “That’s who we are each and every night, we’ve been working on that and tonight we were successful with it against a very good team.”
His players picked up on the energy in the building. After the first timeout in the first quarter there was a lovely tribute video and a long ovation. Casey was busy drawing up a play.
“They finished the video – and I was watching the video – and they were clapping,” said Griffin. “He was about to go over it again and I was like ‘Coach, stand up.’ He deserved that, that was a special moment.”
Things were just getting started.
A tip-in by Drummond gave Detroit its first lead with five minutes to play and a layup by Reggie Jackson made it 100-97 with 4:29 left. But baskets by Lowry and Leonard pulled Toronto even, though a clumsy turnover by a still-rusty Leonard squandered Toronto’s chance to win in regulation.
Tied with two seconds left and revenge at hand, it was a karmic fastball down the middle for Casey, and the old coach didn’t miss.
A beautiful play drawn up by Casey nearly got the Pistons a basket on a lob to Glen Robinson, only to have Siakam come up with an equally impressive block. With 1.2 seconds left Casey drew up one more play and this time the Pistons cashed it on a layup by Reggie Bullock.
Pistons win. Raptors lose. The visiting team’s coach stormed the floor as 19,800 people stood silent. Casey delivered.
“It’s not like we just discovered this today,” Griffin said of Casey’s play-calling chops. “We put in plays like that all the time in practice. He demands execution and we executed. Maybe to Toronto fans or to their GM, maybe it was a surprise, but not to us.”
It was some pretty good coaching from a pretty good coach.