New Raptors coach preaches from hockey bible

Dwane Casey speaks after being introduced as the new head coach of the Raptors during a news...

Dwane Casey speaks after being introduced as the new head coach of the Raptors during a news conference in Toronto, Ont., June 21, 2011. (MIKE CASSESE/Reuters)

STEVE BUFFERY, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 7:57 PM ET

TORONTO - After the Dallas Mavericks fell behind two games to one to the Miami Heat in the NBA Finals earlier this month, the Dallas coaching staff decided to try something new in regards to motivating their players.

What they did is take a page out of a hockey book — which many basketball purists may not want to hear.

“We spliced in some hockey video with our game plan,” said Dwane Casey, a Dallas assistant then, now the Toronto Raptors’ head coach. “We felt we were playing too soft against Miami to start the series. And it really set the tone. I don’t know a lot about hockey, I want to learn about it, but we spliced it in — guys checking players up into the (glass), into the boards — and that’s the way we want to play.”

Casey, who was formally announced as the new head man with the Raptors at a press conference on Tuesday, relayed that anecdote to send a message to the Raptor players. And it’s a pretty straight-forward message, one that they no doubt expected given Casey’s reputation around the NBA. It’s the message that, basically, the days of soft, playground, offence-first basketball are over. And, if you don’t want to play hard-nosed defence, enjoy polishing the bench with your ass.

In case you haven’t heard, Casey is a defensive specialist, the “architect” as Raptors GM Bryan Colangelo called him, of the Mavericks’ defensive system, a system that helped the Mavs overcome the hugely talented Heat and win the NBA championship in six games.

Here’s the interesting part. Casey, the new basketball sheriff in T.O. hopes to convince his players to play defence first, not with a gun to the head, but by convincing them that playing grinding, stifling defence is, well, fun — which, frankly, may be a hard sell. The Raptors, after all, are generally not known as a team that plays gritty defence. Pretty well the opposite.

But Casey, 54, believes players can be convinced to want to play hard defence, to want to play tough, even if that’s not something they haven’t done in the past — and certainly a few Raptors fit that bill.

“When you lock people up, when you put your stamp, when you put your imprint on the game defensively, that’s fun,” said Casey.

Fun or not, it will be interesting to see how players like Andrea Bargnani and Jose Calderon adapt to Casey’s defence-first system.

But, again, Casey, who has served as a head coach, an associate coach and assistant coach in the NBA 16 of the last 17 years, believes he knows how to convince players to embrace his style.

“Because the NBA season is so long, if you come in every day with a sledge hammer and a whip and chain, it doesn’t work,” he said. “It’s developing that in a subtle way. You’ve got to make it fun, it can’t be looked at as drudgery.”

Casey said it’s all about establishing a defensive identity and an atmosphere of “hard play”. Players, after a while, embrace being hard asses.

While some pro leagues appear to be on a youth kick in terms of hiring coaches, Colangelo said Casey, despite not exactly being a fresh face, is a perfect fit to coach a young, rebuilding Raptors team. And he’s not alone in that sentiment. Colangelo told a story about how Dallas head coach Rick Carlisle called him in the wee hours of the morning, right after the Mavericks won the NBA title on June 12.

“He said, ‘Bryan, I want to know what it’s going to take to get Dwane that job in Toronto,’” said Colangelo. “‘It’s right for him, it’s right for you, it’s right for the situation. You need to strongly consider it.’ And I said, ‘Rick, first of all, congratulations, you should be enjoying yourself, not promoting someone.’”

The call obviously had an affect, though, of course, Casey had already been on Colangelo’s radar.

Now it’s up to Casey, the eighth head coach in Raptors history, to get the players to buy into his style, and, again, that’s not an easy chore as the 22-60 Raptors finished in the bottom half of the NBA in most defensive categories last season.

But the Morganfield, Ky., native is anxious to prove himself — again — as a head coach. He was hired as the head man in Minnesota in 2005 but was never really given an adequate chance to prove himself in that job. Despite guiding a transitional T-Wolves team to a 20-20 record in his second season in Minnesota, Casey was fired, even though, in his first year there, the team finished in the top 10 in fewest average points per game and lowest opponent field goal percentage.

It was a controversial firing, as was his resignation from the University of Kentucky in 1988, when an envelope filled with $1,000 in cash, with Casey identified as the sender, was discovered. The envelope was being sent to the father of a UK recruit. Casey, an assistant coach, was placed on probation for five years by the NCAA.

That incident has made it even tougher for Casey to get to where he is today, he’s had to prove himself over and over as an assistant, but his record as a coach certainly speaks for itself, and it speaks loudly enough for the Raptors to give him another shot.

steve.buffery@sunmedia.ca

twitter @beezersun


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