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Lewenberg: Casey finally gets his due as Raps continue to win

Josh Lewenberg
1/2/2014 6:08:46 PM
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TORONTO - Dwane Casey says his New Year's resolution is to cut back on his use of profanity.

Lately his team hasn't given him much to curse about.

The Raptors have won four straight, nine of their last 12 games, and the NBA has taken notice, awarding Casey Eastern Conference Coach of the Month honours for December.

Heading into the month, Casey - like everyone else on the team's payroll - was on the hot seat after a 6-12 start forced Masai Ujiri's hand and prompted the first of what seemed to be a series of franchise-altering transactions, the trade of Rudy Gay. Since then and to the surprise of most observers, Casey's club has turned a corner, playing the best and most harmonious basketball of his three-year tenure. Still, the Raptors' coach is a long ways from taking any credit for his or the team's recent accomplishments.

"I don't give a crap," Casey exclaimed following Wednesday's upset win over Indiana, briefly disregarding his New Year's promise after he was asked about the personal satisfaction that may come out of his team success.

"I mean, it's not about me. It's about that team in there, in that locker room. I'm going to be in coaching for a long time so it's not about me, it's about those guys."

No, he's not going to take any credit, but he deserves a whole lot of it.

The 56-year-old head coach has held his team together during what could have been, and likely should have been, their most trying period of time. Forced to bid farewell to their (arguably) most talented player and welcome in four new teammates after a rare early-season trade, the Raptors found themselves in a place of uncertainty. They were a franchise in limbo.

Many believed Ujiri would immediately clean house, beginning with starting point guard Kyle Lowry, and perhaps even Casey, both in the last year of expiring deals. In spite of the obvious and understandable off-court distractions that hovered over them, Casey kept his troops focused. They remained upbeat, maybe more so than ever before, and continued to fight the good fight.

The results speak for themselves.

"I know, to win in this league you have to be a physical, bad-behind team," Casey said, staying in line with his resolution after the Raptors closed out December with a comeback win in Chicago, finishing the month with an 8-6 record.

"I'm not going to let up, I'm not going to relent from that because that's who we are, it's who we've got to be."

All 15 players have bought into what Casey has been selling. They have defeated the best team in each conference and engineered four comeback victories on the road in a span of six games. Still, they remain grounded, focused and hungry for more.

"The two wins [are] great but it would have been nice to finish with one more," Amir Johnson had said after a hard-fought loss in San Antonio, coming off a pair of surprising road wins over Dallas and Oklahoma City. "We can't settle."

"It's a process," Casey says so often that the words have lost their meaning, but it has been and continues to be a process. DeMar DeRozan, the team's leading scorer, has never participated in a playoff game or been part of a winning team. Johnson hasn't won since he was a spectator on the contending Pistons teams. Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross, both starters, are barely a third of the way into their second season as NBA pros.

Somehow Casey has this group believing they can win, behaving like they've been in this situation before and for the most part, they haven't.

From Casey's standpoint, nothing has changed. His approach remains the same, his work ethic is still unmatched but like anything else in professional sports and in life it's about taking advantage of the right opportunity.

Finally, the Raptors' third-year head coach is getting the chance to show what he can do with a healthy, stable rotation. In his first season with the team, the lockout-shortened campaign of 2011-12, Casey overachieved despite using 20 different starting lineups and losing 124 man-games to injury. In many ways last season was three-in-one, as Casey has called it. The Raptors used 22 different starting units in 2012-13, losing 163 games to injury while navigating through the deal that brought Gay to Toronto midseason.

Through 30 games this season, the team has had the benefit of good health, losing just five games to injury. As a result, Casey has started four different five-man units. In return for Gay, Ujiri was able to acquire four veteran players, three of which have been featured in Casey's nine-man rotation, the first consistent rotation he has felt comfortable using consistently over an extended period of time.

"Guys are playing their role, guys are producing, that makes any rotation easier when guys produce," Casey said earlier this week, deflecting the credit once again.

Since the trade, a vast majority of Casey's bold coaching decisions have paid off. Moving Ross to the starting lineup, cutting Tyler Hansbrough's minutes to include Patrick Patterson in the rotation, utilizing veteran forward John Salmons over Landry Fields and Steve Novak, rotating Ross and Salmons to close games, they've all contributed to the team's recent surge.

As they embark on another challenging road-trip - visiting the red-hot Wizards, defending champion Heat and conference-best Pacers - the Raptors sit atop the Atlantic Division for the first time (this late in the season) since 2007. That was also the last year a Raptors' coach was named Coach of the Month. Casey becomes the third coach in franchise history to receive the honour, joining Lenny Wilkens (April 2002) and Sam Mitchell (January 2007), who went on to win the NBA's Coach of the Year award that season.

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