Competitive fire? Check. But Casey’s smarts put Pistons in position to finish off emotional comeback at Toronto
Mary Kate Ridgway/NBAE/Imaging
TORONTO – On one hand, Dwane Casey understands the brutal reality of the NBA, where only one franchise among 30 endures something other than a restless summer.
On the other hand, nah, he’ll never really understand the decision the Toronto Raptors made to fire him after leading them to 59 wins, the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and the respect of both his peers and the official voters, both of whom named him last season’s NBA Coach of the Year.
Worse, the whispers about why he was fired flirted with playing to stereotypes offensive on multiple levels, not least of which is Casey believes them blatantly unjustified.
So it wasn’t just the fact that the Pistons rallied from 19 points down in the second half to hand the 12-2 Toronto Raptors only their third loss of the season Wednesday night. In doing so, they displayed the same intensity Casey exudes under a placid surface, the same low-burning competitive fire. They showed they’ll play hard for him, showed they’ll execute his directions willingly and faithfully.
But it was something else, something beyond a team paying their coach the compliment of playing hard for 48 minutes.
It was Casey’s in-game adjustments, his ability to find a lineup that clicked and mixing components of his first and second units to spark the rally. It was Casey’s shrewd play calling with the game on the line. It was his ability to think one step ahead. It was the very things they whispered about him to explain the curious decision to move on from the winningest coach by a few laps in franchise history.
Sticking with Langston Galloway and Stanley Johnson paid off for Casey, especially when Johnson harassed Kawhi Leonard into five turnovers in the game’s final nine minutes. When Casey called the final timeout with two seconds left – after Leonard booted the ball out of bounds as he attempted to circle around Johnson to get off a potential game-winning shot – he called two out of bounds plays in case the Pistons needed one in their pocket.
That paid off beautifully when – after Glenn Robinson III’s attempt to convert Jose Calderon’s off-target lob pass was blocked – the Pistons had to dial up a second inbounds play with 1.2 seconds left and the play Casey designed produced a virtual layup for Reggie Bullock at the buzzer.
A Toronto reporter asked Blake Griffin if it gives Pistons players a degree of confidence in their coach when he gives them those tools to win games.
“We know that. This isn’t like we just discovered this for the first time today,” he said. “We’ve put in plays like that all the time in practice. He demands execution and we executed. Maybe to Toronto fans – or certainly their GM, maybe – it was a surprise. But not to us.”
Oof. Burn marks were reported all the way down the 401 to the Canadian border by the RCMP.
Casey, for his part, came as close as he’ll ever come to tooting his horn over the late-game maneuvering.
“You get criticized for a lot of things,” he began when asked if the win carried extra personal satisfaction for the way his stamp was imprinted on it. “People have their own perception. ‘He’s a communicator. He’s a hard worker. He’s a grinder.’ ”
Left unsaid: He’s not as light on his feet as the guys held up as coaching savants. Casey doesn’t outwardly bristle, but scratch the surface a quarter-inch and you’ll find his bristles.
“I’ve been in this league a long time. I’ve seen every situation there is. Execution, knowing end-of-game plays, I put ’em up against anybody in the NBA. But people have to hang their hat on something, say he can’t do this, he can’t make decisions. I just smile at it. Because I look at my track record, defensively and offensively, against anybody in this league.”
As the Pistons started showing some spunk and Toronto coach Nick Nurse, Casey’s assistant the past five seasons elevated to replace him, had to call two timeouts a little more than three minutes apart, Casey’s players saw his embers glowing.
“I bleepin’ loved it,” Johnson grinned. “He’s a super competitive coach. That’s how he is, but I love it. Knowing his history here – I didn’t even know he had knocked off all the accolades he did until I watched the video during the timeout – I was like, ‘Oh, God.’ He was amped. We were amped. It helped amp us a little more, too, when you see your coach into the game and he can’t even play. I was really happy we could do it for him.”
That video tribute to Casey came at the first timeout three minutes into the game. Casey was too busy drawing up a play to notice, but Pistons players who weren’t in the game and seated facing him had their necks fully craned to take it in – and even the ones seated before him stole a few glances.
Finally, as the tribute ended and the standing ovation grew to a crescendo, Griffin caught Casey’s attention.
“He was drawing up a play and they finished the video, (fans) started clapping,” Griffin said. “I was watching the video – and the play – and he was about to go over it again. I was like, ‘Coach, we got it. Stand up (to acknowledge the crowd).’ He deserved that. That’s a special moment.”
Dwane Casey understood that, too.