WASHINGTON — Dwane Casey remembers the “powwow” he had with DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry.
The Toronto Raptors were in Utah, wrapping up their uninspiring season-opening road trip, and Casey’s all-stars weren’t fitting into the team’s new ball-sharing style of play as seamlessly as he would have liked.
The coach asked DeRozan and Lowry to believe in the process. He pleaded with them to be patient.
Six months later, those growing pains are long gone and that patience is paying off as the Raptors look to take a 3-0 playoff series lead over the Washington Wizards on Friday.
“It was early in the season, just they hadn’t got a feel for it yet, they hadn’t gotten a real understanding of when they were going to get their shots, when they were going to get their touches so to speak, and how they could help the team win on the offensive end,” Casey said ahead of the team’s trip to Washington.
“I implored them to, ‘Let’s give it a chance, let’s continue to buy in,’ he said. “Their leadership, their belief in it, not just going through the motions. And they did. Their leadership and their buy-in was huge in letting us change an offensive system that was statistically successful last year. That was something that was huge for those guys.”
Casey was asked: Did one of them buy in more than the other?
“No. It was a twins moment,” the coach said.
The Raptors had just lost badly in Denver. They closed that trip with a 109-100 win in Utah. They’d go on to win a franchise-record 59 games in the regular season, clinching the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference.
Along the way, the Raptors improved from last in the league in assists last season to fifth.
The team’s cultural reset was about ball movement and three-point shooting, in an effort to get away from the one-on-one game that held them back against Cleveland in the post-season for two consecutive seasons.
So far, so good. Lowry and DeRozan combined for 15 assists in the Raptors’ Game 1 win over the Wizards. Six Raptors scored in double figures in each of Game 1 and 2, and Toronto outscored Washington by a combined 19 points.
And suddenly, the team that finds motivation in its perceived lack of respect is getting plenty. ESPN writer Zach Lowe said on his podcast that hours after the Raptors’ Game 1 win, ESPN’s NBA personnel was instructed to make sure their passports were up to date in case Toronto made the NBA final.
Casey, however, is expecting a tough fight from Washington in Game 3 at Capital One Arena. The Raptors were swept by Washington in the first round of the playoffs three years ago.
“We had some tough experiences out there, especially in the playoffs, right?” Casey said Thursday. “We’re going there to win the game. So the building’s not important, other players are not important. It’s about us. How are we going to play, how much we’re going to want to win, how we’re going to be ready for them.
“Because they’re going to play hard. It’s do or die for them.”
The Raptors are a significantly different squad than the one sent home with their collective tails between their legs in 2015. They’ve been dominant in these playoffs, averaging a league-high 122 points per game. The Raptors have also hit a league-best 29 three-pointers, and are averaging 7.5 blocks a game while shooting 52.4 per cent from the field.
The Raptors arrive in Washington boasting more road wins (25) than the Wizards have home victories (23).
The Wizards, meanwhile, don’t seem to be sweating their 0-2 post-season hole. John Wall pointed out how the Wizards trailed Boston 0-2 in last season’s Eastern Conference semis before pulling even.
Boston went on to win the series 4-3.
“You never want to be in this situation, but this is what the game of basketball is and the position we put ourselves into,” Wall said. “As a team, we have a lot of pride, a lot of confidence and still believe we can win this series. We know our crowd is going to be amazing for us, and us as a team have to come out with more energy and more sense of focus.”
Wall was asked if there’s a disconnect with the team. Cameras caught what appeared to be an argument between Wall and Marcin Gortat on the bench during Game 2, while one seat down Bradley Beal had his face buried in a towel.
Wall admitted there is a disconnect defensively, but that he and Gortat were “just talking about our defensive coverages.
“That’s all it was. Just talking about something we wanted to do defensively,” he said. “I mean, people who are not in that huddle or the outside will think that we’re arguing or having the biggest blowup. But that’s their decision. We’re the guys that (have) got to stick together when times are hard or tough. We do that.”
Game 4 is Sunday in Washington.