Lewenberg: Casey faces former pupil in opening-round series

Josh Lewenberg
4/18/2014 7:03:34 PM
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TORONTO - On Saturday afternoon, less than three years after winning an unlikely championship together in Dallas, Dwane Casey and Jason Kidd will sit on opposite ends of the Air Canada Centre sideline, getting set to make their postseason debut as head coaches.

Just ahead of tip-off, as their teams stretch, shoot around and a sellout crowd - draped in white - files into the building, the two coaches will meet at centre court.

They'll shake hands, exchange a few words then return to their respective benches in the hopes of sending the other home for an early summer vacation.

They haven't spoken since finding out that the Raptors and Nets would face off in round one of the Eastern Conference playoffs, which isn't to say there's a lack of mutual respect between the two. On the contrary, there's actually a whole lot of it.

Friendship is for the offseason, Casey always boasts. Until then, these former colleagues have a job to do, and they're in each other's way.

They've traveled down dissimilar paths to get to this point.

Casey, who celebrated his 57th birthday on Thursday, has been coaching in the NBA for over two decades. After serving as a long-time assistant under George Karl in Seattle, he spent a couple seasons as the head man with the Timberwolves, where he coached Nets' veteran and future hall of famer Kevin Garnett.

In 2011, his third season as Rick Carlisle's lead assistant in Dallas, Casey helped guide the experienced Mavericks to an unexpected championship, with Kidd starting at point guard.

Kidd, now 41, was in season 17 of his illustrious 19-year career. He was a retired NBA player for 10 days before becoming a head coach this past summer.

"First of all, I texted him and [asked] him if he's lost his mind," Casey joked, asked about Kidd's move to the bench earlier this season.

The Nets controversial decision to hand the reins over to Kidd, fresh off his final campaign in New York, was met with more criticism than any coaching hire in recent memory. When his first season as a bench boss got off to a rocky start many called for his head, but he had a steadfast supporter in Casey, who knew it was only a matter of time before Kidd and his veteran Nets team rocketed back to top of the East.

"He's going to be a good coach because he was a computer on the floor and he just has to transfer that to his players," Casey said ahead of a late November meeting between the two teams. The Nets were 3-10 going into that game. "It takes time."

"He's one of the toughest minded guys I've been around and I've coached, and I've been around some strong minded guys, but he was definitely one of them," Casey added prior to their next meeting, two months later. The Nets, 10-21 on Jan. 1, had won five in a row before losing in Toronto that night. "I knew mentally he was going to stay strong and stay into it and it would be a matter of time."

Brooklyn would go on to finish the campaign with the second best record among Eastern Conference teams in 2014 and Kidd became a two-time Coach of the Month winner.

As Casey met with the media Friday afternoon, less than 24 hours before Game 1, the Raptors' coach was caught off guard when one reporter pointed out that he and Kidd would be sharing their playoff head coaching debuts. "I never thought about that," he said in earnest, but he's not the least bit surprised to see his counterpart in the position that he's in.

"Jason was always a step ahead of the curve," said Casey, the East's Coach of the Month for December. "I think point guards are coaches on the floor, they should be. They've gone through their whole career figuring out things on the fly, on the court. So I think that's the difference in Jason. Jason has been a thinker his whole career and he's doing a good job with Brooklyn."

For these old friends, this series should turn into something of a chess match. The Nets' rookie coach has a veteran-laden roster at his disposal. A big factor in his team's 2014 reversal of fortunes has been Kidd's commitment to a small lineup, starting a couple of point guards in the backcourt and using Paul Pierce as their mobile, perimeter-oriented power forward.

"I think they established an identity, much like we did," Casey told in an exclusive conversation Friday. "I think putting Pierce at the four position was a huge turnaround for them. Solidifying the smaller lineup really helped them."

Casey has the benefit of a versatile roster. With Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas, the Raptors can go against the grain and put pressure on the visiting Nets with a size and strength advantage or they can match-up using their own version of the small lineup. "Philosophy is personnel driven," Casey wisely pointed out. With Johnson and Patrick Patterson - two versatile forwards who can rebound and also step out and defend on the perimeter - Toronto's coach is confident his team can utilize both their small and big units with success in this series.

"It's going to be huge," he said of that versatility. "If we stay big we've got to really pound the boards and take advantage of it if they stay small but at the same time they're such a lethal three-point shooting team. It's hard for our bigs, with our mentality to get out and guard the three-point line in those situations so we're going to have to figure that out as far as when we do go small, who has the advantage. If we have an advantage on the boards or inside we'll try to do that but if we're getting killed with three-point shooting then we'll have to make some adjustments."

Casey's quiet confidence and poise has rubbed off on his team all season but those characteristics have never been more important than they are now. By now you've heard of their inexperience, Casey's embraced it because, what choice does he have? They can't pretend like they've been somewhere they haven't, they won't pretend to be something they're not. If you want to count them out because of it, Casey understands, but he doesn't advise it.

"I don't want to diminish [experience], it's very important," he said. "In any walk of life it's important if you're going to do a job at a high level to have as much experience as you can possibly have. We are who we are, we can't change it. The way our guys get experience is to go through this. But at the end of the day you still have to go out and play the game. There's been a lot of young teams that beat older teams in the history of the game and we're ready for that challenge. I think we're better with a chip on our shoulder, being the desperate team. I think we struggle when we're the favourite so I like that part about it. I don't even talk about it to our players, about experience. Hey, they don't know any better, so let's go play the game."

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