CHARLOTTE - Execution breeds champions. It breeds playoff teams. It breeds winners.
Dwane Casey, a champion in Dallas, knows this as well as anyone. He alluded to it 24 hours earlier.
"It's (about) being in the moment (and) making big plays at the right time," Casey said Tuesday night after his team suffered an expected and excusable loss to the defending champion Miami Heat. "We put ourselves in a position to beat the best team in the league. Now the next step for our team is to be able to bust through that."
A day later, when the Raptors needed it the most, execution failed them in a second loss, this time to the Bobcats, a team that won 21 games last year. By all accounts this was a winnable game, instead it became their third loss on the season, one that stings more than the others.
The Bobcats rebounded the ball off a DeMar DeRozan miss with just under 26 seconds remaining and a 1.9 second difference between the shot clock and the game clock. Faced with a choice - foul and extend the game or play it out - Casey opted not to give the foul. Rookie head coach Steve Clifford called a timeout with five seconds remaining, giving both teams one final chance to talk things over but at that point Casey had already made his decision, the Raptors had made their bed. Wisely, Gerald Henderson waited until the very last moment to release a three-pointer, barely avoiding a shot clock violation and allowing the game clock to expire.
"We felt like we could get one stop and then get a timeout," Casey said, standing by his decision to play out the final possession in which he hoped to force a turnover or grab a quick rebound, giving his team one last shot at the tie or a win.
"It was tough," said Landry Fields of the play. "We didn't have as much time as we really thought."
A quick foul would have extended the game and forced Charlotte - the fourth worst free throw shooting team last year - to knock down a pair from the line. "We could have fouled, we could have done different things," Kyle Lowry acknowledged, "but we didn't and that's that."
With a clock differential just under two seconds, Toronto put its fate in the hands of the Bobcats and the home team played it perfectly. A winning play from a losing team and that was the difference in a game that belonged to Charlotte from start to finish.
"That's the way it went down at the end," said Casey. "It should never have gotten to that."
The Raptors' defence showed up 12 minutes after the ball was thrown up. The home team - having also played the night before, upsetting the Knicks in New York - took it to Toronto right out of the gate.
"Our approach at the beginning of the game was very unlike us and if we played the way we did the last three quarters, the game doesn't come down to that (final possession)," stated Casey. "That was a great lesson for us, to come out with a professional, intense approach as if we're serious about winning, and we didn't do that. We left it in the hands of the last couple possessions."
The Bobcats hit 15 of their 20 first-quarter shots, assisting on 11 of them and going on to outscore Toronto 32-18 in the opening frame.
"We had no defensive focus whatsoever," Casey continued. "And then it kind of continued, because now they had their confidence. Instead of coming out and punching them in the mouth early, they got (into) a flow. We couldn't shut it off."
"We looked like we were playing in sand," said Rudy Gay, who led the Raptors in scoring with 20 but struggled shooting the ball once again, going 8-for-21 from the field. "(Playing) slow, defensive lapses, letting easy stuff getting to the basket and things like that count at the end of the game and they creep up on you. It kind of haunted us."
Gay chalked it up to a lack of maturity on the part of the Raptors.
"We have to get smarter," said Gay, who has committed 13 of his team-leading 19 turnovers in the second half of his first five games. "We have to get smarter with (our) preparation for games."
"Personally I have to bring it in the beginning of games. I have to demand continuity on the defensive end and set the tone. That's something I have to do in the future."
Small lineup excludes Valanciunas in the fourth
Once again, Casey and the Raptors chose to go small through most of the fourth quarter, which on this night meant Jonas Valanciunas was left watching the game's conclusion from the bench.
For the second straight night Valanciunas got off to a quick start, scoring eight of his team's first 12 points. However, he became an afterthought from there as his teammates failed to keep him involved. He attempted one shot after the opening 12 minutes.
Valanciunas played all but 22 seconds of the third quarter but didn't see the floor at all in the fourth, this coming a day after he anchored the small lineup in the final four minutes against the Heat, with Amir Johnson on the bench for the entire frame.
"I thought Amir and Tyler did a heck of a job," Casey said in defence of his decision to leave his sophomore on the bench. "Rotating those three is huge, there's not one guy (we're) going to favour (over) the other."
Through the first five games of the season, Valanciunas has scored 30 points in 47 first-quarter minutes and just 19 points combined, in 72 minutes the rest of those games.
"I don't think they go away from him," Casey responded, asked about that trend.
Taking the Cats lightly
The Bobcats have been a perennial bottom dweller over the last three years yet for whatever reason, the Raptors haven't been able to take advantage when visiting Time Warner Cable Arena. They haven't won in Charlotte since Mar. 29, 2010, a span of six games.
Asked if they may have taken the Bobcats lightly in the past, DeRozan - who had a rough night with 14 points on 5-of-16 shooting - came up with another possible explanation.
"(It's) just tough coming here," DeRozan said. "You've got to maintain your own energy. The crowd's not always that great, we've just got to find ways to motivate ourselves out of the gate."
The Raptors have an off day following the back-to-back before visiting the undefeated Indiana Pacers on Friday.