Lewenberg: Raptors stun league's best team in OKC

Josh Lewenberg

12/23/2013 2:25:06 AM

OKLAHOMA CITY - Prior to Sunday's game - a game no rational person expected them to be competitive in, let alone win - Raptors' coach Dwane Casey spoke about his team's newfound mental toughness.

"I like the toughness factor in certain situations where last year and two years ago we'd get bumped, get hit [and] wouldn't respond," Casey said an hour and a half before facing the league-best Thunder, a team that' hadn't yet lost at home. "We've grown up from that standpoint and learning how to win is huge."

To suggest that Casey was foreshadowing is giving him too much credit. He couldn't have known or genuinely expected what was about to happen. No one did. But he was on to something.

This is a different Raptors team than the one Casey was referring to, the one that would cower from adversity in years past.

They were supposed to go winless on this exceptionally difficult Western Conference road swing. Instead, they've won their first two games.

“I'm seeing it growing," Casey said of his team's resiliency after shocking the hosting Thunder, 104-98, winning four straight on the road for the first time since 2002. "It was one of those things where our guys fought through it and we could have folded or packed it in but they stuck with it and stuck together most of all and didn't fall apart."

He called it their best win of the season, which is a given. To take it one step further, it was the Raptors most impressive victory of the three-year Casey era and for all the criticism Toronto's coach takes, he had his fingerprints all over it.

Casey earned his pay check Sunday evening. He didn't sit down, he didn't relax. He couldn't, not against this team. The Raptors got off to a quick start but withstood the inevitable counterpunch, they rose above spotty officiating and stood their ground when they needed to the most. Through it all Casey was manic on the sidelines. "Sit down Coach," a Thunder fan behind the Raptors' bench kept yelling. He didn't.

The Raptors were coming off an impressive win in Dallas, defeating a Mavericks team that was 11-2 at home on Friday. The Thunder, winners of nine straight and 17 of 18 overall, were perfect in 13 games at Chesapeake Energy Arena.

Toronto threw the first punch and led by six at the break. They were "the aggressor," as Casey puts it, and they paid for it. The Thunder had attempted 22 free throws at the half, making them all, while Toronto shot just 10. That trend continued into the third when, finally the lopsided officiating began to seep into the psyche of a young team that has never been known for their mental resolve.

A nine-point lead early in the third quarter turned into a nine-point deficit going into a fourth. Collectively Raptors fans thought, here we go again. The Thunder were fighting back - as we expected - and the Raptors couldn't catch a break from the officials. They missed 17 of 19 field goal attempts to end the frame.

That's when something seemed different. They didn't run, they didn't hide, they hit right back. For that, Casey and his players unanimously credited the work of veteran newcomer John Salmons.

"I thought John Salmons maturity came through," Casey said of the reserve forward, who scored nine of his 14 playing the entire fourth quarter. "He has a settling effect when he's in the game and it helps us. It rubs off on DeMar and Terrence. He doesn't get rattled."

"John Salmons, I mean give him the game ball, offensively and defensively," added Kyle Lowry. "Just, here, take the ball. He was a big-time player tonight."

For the second straight game Salmons came up big when it mattered most. On Friday he slowed down Monta Ellis and two days later he was a big part of the brigade that frustrated Kevin Durant, holding him to 24 points on 5-of-16 shooting, 1-of-6 in the fourth, and forcing his six turnovers.

A 12-year vet, Salmons was an afterthought in the seven-player deal that sent Rudy Gay to Sacramento earlier this month. He was - and probably is - a temporary Raptor, a contract that can be moved at the deadline or easily bought out in the offseason. A day after the trade was finalized, he stood in front of the local media without much in the way of emotion or excitement, complaining about being tired from the trip.

He has brought more to this team than anyone could have expected.

"I'm not a rah-rah guy at all but I've been around for a long time," he said. "I've experienced a lot so I just try to give my advice when I can."

Taking the lead of Salmons, his teammates remained even-keeled when things looked to be going south. Nobody panicked. They executed and made good decisions, the right plays down the stretch.

"We've done a great job of just everyone cheering for each other, supporting each other and nobody's getting their head down," said Lowry, who continues to play the best basketball of his career, leading the team with 22 points and nine assists on Sunday. "Everyone's focusing on winning the game no matter how bleak it looks."

DeRozan played well, scoring 17 points against a tough defender in Thabo Sefolosha, someone who has given him fits in the past and once again, Amir Johnson was the unsung hero. Johnson - who recorded a double-double of 17 points and 13 rebounds - made some crucial defensive plays down the stretch, switching off on Durant and swatting a Russell Westbrook floater in the final two minutes of the game.

"I can't [say enough], there's too much to say about him," Lowry said, or attempted to say about Johnson. "He's just an unbelievable player. He had his struggles (early in the season) but we all said he'll be alright once he finds his groove. And look at him, he's playing unbelievable. He guarded Kevin Durant as tough as he did and the other night he guarded Dirk (Nowitzki) as tough as he did. You just have to tip your hat to him."

Back atop the Atlantic Division, the Raptors play their final game before a three-day Christmas break in San Antonio on the second night of a back-to-back Monday. The Spurs have the third-best record in the West and are 9-3 at home. The Raptors are not supposed to win. Care to bet against them?