Raptors coach Dwane Casey: 'It's still early'

Raptors head coach Dwane Casey barks instructions to his team as they play against the Pacers at...

Raptors head coach Dwane Casey barks instructions to his team as they play against the Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse in Indianapolis, Ind., Nov. 13, 2012. (BRENT SMITH/Reuters)

MIKE GANTER, QMI Agency

, Last Updated: 10:29 PM ET

INDIANAPOLIS - Dwane Casey was hearing it from all sides.

His team was in trouble. Their collective psyche was fragile, bordering on broken.

It was time to panic.

To it all, Casey, ever the level-headed professional, calmly said "No" to any and all of it.

"It's early in the season," Casey said before Tuesday's tilt against the Indiana Pacers.

"That's what we keep telling our guys. The league hasn't gone anywhere. We're talking about chipping away at our resilience and we haven't played 10 games yet.

"I don't like our record whatsoever, none. But that said, it's still early, the Eastern Conference hasn't gone anywhere yet."

And then his charges went out and gave him the type of gritty performance he has known his club to be capable of, but one that hadn't quite figured out how to finish the deal.

Somehow, and with no small contribution from the basketball gods that Casey referenced in the aftermath, the Raptors left Indianapolis with a win. They stopped the bleeding and they did it with a collection of weary and somewhat disgruntled players against a team that had every reason to be as hungry as they themselves were.

Four straight losses looked like a sure bet to become five until the Raptors re-located a big dose of that defensive identity they spent all of last season establishing, only to see it go AWOL this season.

Sure the team was life and death to hit a shot during the final 12 minutes on Tuesday night. And yes, Indiana's own shooting woes certainly contributed -- between them Paul George, David West and Roy Hibbert were a combined 9-for-31 -- but for the first time all season, the Raptors can look back and honestly say they won a game on the strength of their defence.

That more than anything else is the reason for optimism.

There will be tough stretches yet to come in the season as Casey alluded to after the game, but if he can finally get them playing a tough team defence with all the moving parts operating in harmony, that playoff spot that was starting to look more and more hopeless at least comes back into focus a little bit.

The contributers in Tuesday's 74-72 win over the Pacers were numerous.

From rookie Jonas Valanciunas who battled Hibbert into a submission -- although it was Frank Vogel who finally threw in the white towel and took his struggling centre out for the bulk of the final quarter -- to Amir Johnson, who was his normal, energetic self and protector of the paint, the Raptors somehow found a way to win when their offence was all but registering tilt.

Johnson got the David West assignment for the bulk of the second half and did not disappoint. West, who had his way with Andrea Bargnani in the season opener was marked for special attention and Johnson was the perfect man for the job.

"When he comes down the floor I gave him three bumps before he can get comfortable," Johnson said of his approach.

On the one hand, Casey knew from an offensive standpoint, Tuesday's game could have single-handedly pushed the game of basketball back a decade. Somehow Toronto managed to win despite making just one field goal in the entire fourth quarter. For the half, the Raps made good on a total of six shots from the field. Six!

Indiana wasn't much better with five in each of the third and fourth quarters.

But to hear Casey gush about the defensive intensity by his bone-weary team, you would think tape of this one was headed straight to the Basketball Hall of Fame in Springfield, Massachusetts.

Casey was excited on the one hand because his team finally caught a few breaks, but the real reason was that his defence matters mantra was finally being taken seriously.

That's not to say the Raptors had tuned out their coach, but the focus and pride in defending that was the focal point of this team a year ago had fallen away and Casey, more than most, knew it.

He spent the final two weeks of the pre-season warning anyone loopy enough to get caught up in the Raps pre-season results that he still hadn't seen this team buckle down defensively like he knew they would have to.

Casey even blamed himself for putting too much of an onus on the offence through training camp.

For whatever reason, the Raptors chose Tuesday night to turn back the clock and bring some of the defensive intensity that was their calling card a year ago.

It helped get them a win. It was by no means perfect, but for the first time all year some of that defensive fight was back in the Raptors' game.


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