TORONTO — They were two NBA franchises passing like ships on a Friday night.
Only if you switched jerseys you would never know which was full steam ahead and which was adrift for much of the evening.
For most of the night, if you had to guess which team was mailing it in at the end of a long season it would be the Raptors. They have their reasons – second night of a back-to-back and seventh game in 11 nights, four on the road – but the job is to fight through the schedule’s ready-made excuses.
They did eventually, but it was a grind through the fourth quarter and overtime against a hard-playing 22-46 Mavericks outfit that is in tank mode at the tail end of the Dirk Nowitzki era. The Raptors, behind all night, fought back from down eight with just under six minutes to play, tying the game on a DeMar DeRozan pull-up with 1:15 to play, although they whiffed on a couple of chances to win it in regulation.
In overtime, they were quickly down four before Delon Wright, DeRozan and Fred VanVleet hit threes to regain control. VanVleet’s came after a layup attempt went over the backboard and he shot an air ball later, but he stuck with it and his triple off a broken play with 1:13 left in overtime put Toronto up 115-112. Toronto native Dwight Powell tied it again with a three on the next possession in front of his hometown crowd. A DeRozan layup put the Raptors up for good and Jonas Valanciunas (21 points, 12 rebounds) iced it at foul line.
The 122-115 win improved the Raptors’ winning streak to 11 games, tying the franchise record set two seasons ago. They can break it with a win over visiting Oklahoma City on Sunday.
It was not a work of art.
“The whole game was tough for us,” said DeRozan. “When we got a couple stops, they hit some big shots. We kept fighting, kept fighting. We stayed with it. I think we just stayed with it. It came around for us. We took advantage of opportunities that gave us a chance to win and ran with it.”
Toronto is now 52-17 and firmly in control of the top seed in the Eastern Conference, five games up on Boston. The Raptors shot 47 per cent from the floor and just 10-of-30 from three. DeRozan had 29 points but was just 8-of-23 from the field while backcourt mate Kyle Lowry sat for rest on the second night of a back-to-back. Harrison Barnes led the Mavericks with 27. Canadian national team member Powell had nine points and eight rebounds for Dallas in addition to his big three in the extra period.
The win restored order but the visit from Dallas was a reminder of where the Raptors were not so long ago and where they are aspiring to get to. Were it not for the San Antonio Spurs, the Mavericks might have more recognition as one of the NBA’s most consistent performers over the years.
They have the 2011 NBA championship – one of the last handed out to a non-LeBron, non-Curry-led franchise so their example may be worth paying attention to for that reason alone. They should have had two, given they were up 3-1 against Dwyane Wade and the Miami Heat in 2006 and had they not been upset in the first round in 2007 might have had another, given they won 67 games that season.
But almost as important as their peak years were 11 consecutive 50-win seasons beginning in 2001-02 and 15 playoff appearances in 16 seasons.
It’s a level of consistent competitiveness almost never seen in the NBA, where there are always more forces pulling a team apart than holding it together. The Spurs are the ultimate example, and much-emulated if never duplicated, but the Mavericks got it done, too.
“Winning a championship in the NBA you understand the journey, the battle, the grind it is. You can’t get too high, you can’t get too low,” Raptors head coach Dwane Casey was saying with regard to what he came to appreciate from the Mavericks’ feat. He earned a ring as a Rick Carlisle assistant on the title-winning team. “The world’s not at the end if you stub your toe and you can’t celebrate when you win one. It’s a marathon.”
Right now it feels like the Raptors are deep in the middle of a very long race. The games have become a blur, the off days and practices few and far between. Some of the tidiness seems to be slipping from the Raptors’ game.
“Damn. I didn’t know that. That makes sense now,” DeRozan said when told they were at the end of a seven-games-in-11-nights stretch.
“Hell yeah, I feel it.”
Casey’s approach has been to remove the excuses, keep the expectations high.
“He’s been yelling a lot lately,” said DeRozan. “We’re trying to do whatever we can to stop him from yelling. It’s a lot.”
Good coaches often push harder when their team is up and ease up when their team is down. The Raptors have been up, so Casey has been coming down hard. It’s an approach meant to breed consistency and good habits.
It’s working. With their club-record fifth straight playoff appearance clinched, the Raptors are now where the Mavericks were so many times as they cruise to the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference with an eye on their first NBA Finals appearance or maybe even more.
Carlisle, who implored then-Raptors president Bryan Colangelo to hire Casey for Toronto’s head coaching job from a champagne-soaked Dallas dressing room in June of 2011, sees a Raptors club that his old friend has well along the right path.
“He’s been one of the top coaches in the league for the past several years and if you look at where they were when he took over, they were in a total rebuild. Now, they’re a perennial top team in the East. He’s done an amazing job,” said Casey. “This year, turning over parts of the roster and developing that second group … they were mostly all drafted here and developed here and they made their identity here under Dwane. He’ll be a strong candidate for coach of the year, and he’s deserving of that recognition.”
Does he see any parallels between his Mavs title-winning team and what the Raptors are trying to put together?
“They’re younger than we were, which is good, [but] they’re very experienced. Their younger guys — not Lowry or DeRozan or Ibaka — but their second unit guys in their early- and mid-20s play with the edge of seasoned veteran guys. It’s a real testament to how Dwane has been able to instil a real attitude with this group, and it’s really impressive.”
It wasn’t all that impressive in the early going as the Raptors looked tired and barely interested. Wright got the start in place of Lowry. Also back in the starting lineup was rookie OG Anunoby, who had missed the previous six games with a sprained ankle. Wright had 15 points and six assists in 38 minutes and knocked down three of his seven triples. Anunoby looked rusty but hung in there for nearly 20 minutes.
Toronto trailed 56-50 at the half – the fifth time in seven games the Raptors have trailed at the break. They allowed Dallas — the NBA’s 21st-rated offence — to shoot 57 per cent through the first two quarters. It didn’t get any better in the third, although the Raptors did get a quick 5-0 run from a late VanVleet three and a DeRozan buzzer-beater that cut the Mavericks’ lead to 84-78 to start the fourth quarter.
You could see Casey gritting his teeth as his team – tired or no, short their all-star point guard or no – simply didn’t play with the kind of energy required to keep even a shadow roster like the Mavericks arrived with at bay.
“We make it hard on ourselves,” he said. “I understand back-to-back, travel, get in late, all those are excuses … [but] we’re going to see that from here on out until the playoffs, then in the playoffs.”
The Raptors have been consistent with their approach and Casey has been even more consistent with his message. His years in Dallas, helping a franchise achieve excellence over a long period are lessons he’s brought to Toronto.
“Hey, he’s been a rock; he’s been the one major constant [in Toronto],” said Carlisle. “[He’s] one of a few guys that’s going to be in the coach of the year conversation very strong. I’m very happy for him; they’ve got a team here that’s built for a long run.”