Raptors coach Dwane Casey doing outstanding job despite criticism

DeMar DeRozan isn’t making any excuses, but outlines the challenges he's facing right now with his injured right thumb.

The problem in assessing Dwane Casey is that he’s a class guy. First class.

Sometimes evaluating Casey the coach gets confused with evaluating Casey the individual. It’s inevitable. Since he’s such a well-liked and respected person in Toronto and around the NBA, you wonder if it clouds your opinion of his coaching.

If he was a jerk and coaching this well, it would be simple: you wouldn’t be concerned if your personal opinion was making it difficult to assess his role as a coach. You’d merely look at what he’s accomplished and give him the credit he deserves.

But since he’s decidedly not a jerk you pause and think, ‘Am I over-looking something regarding how he does his job because I respect the man?’

Then you see how he’s handled both himself and his team through 82 regular season games and 11 post-season games and you can’t ignore the facts anymore.

Casey is doing an outstanding job and has done it while being unwaveringly true to his principles.

Consider, the Raptors are 6-5 so far in the post-season and tied 2-2 with the Miami Heat in the second round while stars Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan are playing a historically bad brand of offensive basketball.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, the duo’s combined 33.1 per cent shooting this post-season is the worst by any starting backcourt in the past two decades (minimum 150 attempts).

It’s almost inconceivable that any team could survive in the playoffs, let alone be in a good position to win their second playoff series while losing 14 points a game in scoring — the difference between Lowry and DeRozan’s regular season and playoff scoring averages.

Now, it would be easy to suggest that Casey deserves some of the blame for his all-star’s struggles. Except it’s hard to lay that at his feet when Lowry confessed to a crisis of confidence so searing he declared it "mind boggling" after Game 1, a game the Raptors very nearly won with Lowry playing one of the worst of his career.

And while Casey has tried a variety of approaches with DeRozan — from benching him down the stretch to starting him off the ball to working to help him figure out how to manage a league-wide decision (it seems) by referees to no longer reward him with free throws — this is a seven-year veteran with a green light who is shooting 32 per cent from the floor since he sprained his right thumb at the end of Game 2.

More concerning? He shot 33 per cent in the first round when his thumb was perfectly fine.

A certain segment of the Raptors fan base takes DeRozan’s continued playoff struggles as proof that he’s not a franchise player, one that has earned a “max” contract. And yet the same voices have Casey under the gun for the Raptors’ struggles even while calling out his star players for their short-comings.

Every good coach has to dance around fissures in his roster. Casey is trying to figure out how to cross canyons.

But the Raptors have done it.

Defence, a Casey specialty, is a big reason why, though the Raptors’ efforts on that end of the floor have been overlooked. The Heat were one of the NBA’s most potent offences after the all-star break, averaging 109 points per 100 possessions. In their seven-game first-round series against Charlotte — a good defensive team — the Heat were held to 106 points per 100 possessions.

How have they fared against the Raptors in four games and three overtime periods, even with Dwyane Wade averaging a throwback 27 points and six rebounds on 50 per cent shooting?

The Heat are mired in the Raptors muck, averaging just 97 points per 100 possessions, or nearly 18 points less than they were averaging after the all-star break.

"I’m shocked at this point we haven’t been able to score 100 points [in any game of the series]," said Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, admiringly, after Game 4. "We have not been able to consistently get to our game … they’re quick and they protect the paint. They cover ground."

Perhaps the best way to assess a coach is whether or not his team plays hard and if they accept their roles, and it’s hard to argue Casey’s Raptors don’t pass that test.

"The Toronto Raptors are a very good team," said Wade after Game 4. "They fight. They are gritty and aggressive."

A lot of teams might recoil at constantly having to pick up the pieces as their stars keep dropping the plates.

The Raptors, to a man, seem to relish it and Lowry and DeRozan seem most frustrated by the fact they have let down those teammates who are working so hard to make up for their failings.

Coaches are easy targets. Twice so far in the series the Raptors have had the ball in a tie game with a chance to win it before heading to overtime. Each time the possession has ended with a difficult, fading, jump shot by the primary ball-handler without a pass being thrown.

What kind of coach would choose that as his play to try and win a game? Well, none, actually and certainly not Casey.

What they don’t know is that Lowry chose to make a different play at the end of Game 2 than the one Casey called for.

That’s Lowry’s right — a point guard in the NBA needs to feel confident enough to peel off and make his own decisions in a split second. And that’s good coaching too.

Similarly, it’s good coaching to stand behind your players even if the world at large would like to believe you called a step-back 28-footer at the buzzer as your end of game play.

Or how about the end of Game 4? Ridiculous right? Twelve seconds to play and your backup point guard, Cory Joseph, takes a fading 18-footer for the win?

No, that wasn’t the plan either.

The play was for Terrence Ross to set a ball screen for Joseph and then slip it, ideally leaving Joseph some room to work if there was confusion on the coverage or getting Ross open for a split second, generally the best you can hope for in that situation. Instead, Wade muscled Ross away from Joseph, negating the screen and ruining any timing the play might have had.

"We had some difficulty trying to get a slip, trying to get another screen," said Casey. "Dwyane Wade, they did a great job of blowing it up, taking guys off their line, which, you have to give them credit. When he locks in, Dwayne Wade is one of the top defenders in the league."

"It wasn’t the shot we wanted but it didn’t work out the way we wanted it to," said Casey. "That happens in a game and you have to go to Plan B and Cory did a good job of getting a good look."

It’s interesting that no one remembers the beautiful play Casey called that ended up in a lob to Jonas Valanciunas at the end of the first half in Game 3, with Joseph running the point on that one too. The only problem is that Joseph started that sequence with about seven seconds left, which was too early. It left enough time for Wade to get the ball, sprint it up and convert a three-point play at the buzzer, with a frustrated Joseph committing the foul.

That was Casey’s play call but poor execution by Joseph, which happens.

Casey gets criticized for not making enough adjustments or the wrong ones, even as he’s turned his lineup and rotations inside out in an effort to find combinations that can provide some of the offence his stars haven’t without sacrificing the defence his team needs to play to keep in games while they can’t score. Not playing Bismack Biyombo in overtime of Game 4 is Casey’s latest gaffe, the same offensively-challenged player Casey coached to a career season after the failed lottery pick was let walk by Charlotte in the off-season.

"We’ve got to go with the decisions we make as a staff, we work with the analytical people," said Casey. "It’s not like we sit back and say, ‘We’re going to play Pat [and] we’re not going top lay this guy.’ There’s a method to the madness and a well-thought out plan and in a competitive series sometimes the other team gets the edge and (Monday) night, Miami did a good job."

After four games and three overtime periods, the Raptors and Heat are separated by five points in a series that has been dramatically altered midstream due to injuries to each team’s starting centre, but no one is suggesting Heat coach Erik Spoelstra is over his head, even as he’s giving credit to Casey for driving him and his coaching out of their minds.

"This series is complex. It’s changing fast,” said Spoelstra. “At times teams are able to get to their game, and a lot of times they’re not because of the competition and because the margin of error is so small."

Still, heading into a pivotal Game 5 in Toronto, you can’t turn on a radio, read a newspaper or flip through social media without Casey being singled out for criticism, even though he’s coaching a team designated for dismantling just over two years ago to the cusp of the Eastern Conference Finals, and doing it with minimal contributions from the players he’s come to rely on most.

It makes you wonder what people are looking at that they see so clearly other than a good man and a very good coach.

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