Casey sees improvement, playoff chase for Raptors this year Staff

9/27/2012 11:13:21 PM

Make no mistake, Raptors head coach Dwane Casey wants to win badly.

"Bless her heart, bless her soul, but I would probably trade my grandmother if it helped me win," Casey said, while appearing as a guest on Off the Record on Thursday.

And while it might not happen this upcoming season, Casey, entering his second year at the helm of the Raptors, knows there is progress - although it might not be as quickly as the fan base demands; a group that hasn't seen a playoff game since the 2007-08 season.

"Our goal is to win the championship, to make the playoffs," he said. "Realistically, that's another step, after this year. Our next step is to knock on the door of the playoffs. That's going to be what we talk about, what we strive for."

He's inherited two promising pieces that should help that cause, as training camp opened Monday.

The first is Lithuanian Jonas Valanciunas, the Raptors' top pick in the 2011 NBA draft. After a year of grooming in Europe, Casey envisions the youngster filling the void at centre.

"Oh we're excited about it. The young man is in, just turned 20 years old," Casey said. "The guy I had as my assistant coach in Minnesota was his head coach in the Euro League, so I kept with him through that.

"I'm excited to coach this young man. Not only is he seven foot, he's an athletic seven foot. He's a tough kid who likes to hit you first, which is unheard of for a rookie."

The other is guard Kyle Lowry. While the failed pursuit of Steve Nash made most of the offseason hoop headlines in Toronto, Casey may now have the player that could spearhead the defensive mentality he covets for his team.

Whether he comes off the bench, starts ahead of incumbent Jose Calderon, or even if they play together, Casey doesn't see the controversy between his two guards.

"Jose is still my guy, I love Jose, but we need a guy who sets the tone like a pit bull and have that personality, who is more of a vocal leader," he said.
"And not to say Jose is not that. He's just a different type of point guard who's always in attack mode, gets to the rim, and can also shoot the three – with an attitude."

With those additions, along with top draft pick Terence Ross, the signing of swingman Landry Fields, the continued emergence of DeMar DeRozan and Andrea Bargnani, the Raptors, theoretically, should be in the playoff chase.

"So we have the pieces to make the next step in the Eastern Conference," Casey said. "To make the playoffs, Andrea Bargnani has to have a career year. He has to have a great year. Kyle Lowry has to step up. DeMar DeRozan has to have a big year for us, and we have to maintain our defensive focus, that defensive intensity that we started with last year."

And with an NHL lockout potentially derailing the start of the hockey season, there's a chance for the Raptors to take centre stage in Toronto.

"I feel for the hockey fans because we have some of the great fans in the NHL. They're going through what we went through last year," Casey said. "The thing about it is, it does give us an opportunity to take that platform, have the eyes on us, but that works both ways. It puts the pressure on us also and the attention on us, and we hope to take it and run with it."

The Raptors play their first preseason game Oct. 8 against Madrid. They open the regular season at home on Halloween against the Pacers.