Good to great a difficult leap for the Raptors

If you were inside the Air Canada Centre on the fourth day of May, your ears took a beating from which it may have taken considerable time to recover. If you were on the floor for that Game 7, wearing Toronto Raptors colors, facing the Brooklyn Nets, your body and psyche took beatings, too.

Dwane Casey believes his kiddie corps has recovered quite nicely from that painful experience, with the entire starting lineup returning, with greater recognition of the focus and force that sort of competition requires, and with a couple of reinforcements in Lou Williams and James Johnson.

In the NBA, continuity, confidence and awareness can be an empowering trio of assets, and the Raptors are convinced they now possess all three. And while they haven’t fully realized a fourth, maturity, Casey believes they’re closer than they were last May, better understanding everything from the precious nature of each possession to the value of spacing to the best ways to handle a bully.

USA TODAY Sports “Now you get in a tough situation, a team that’s trying to be physical with you and beat you up, that will be nothing compared to what Brooklyn did to us, in Game 7,” the Raptors coach told Bleacher Report, prior to Sunday’s 107-102 loss to the Heat. “(Kevin) Garnett beat the s—t out of us. Joe Johnson beat us. Paul Pierce…”

And yet, they lost by only one, as Pierce swatted Kyle Lowry’s last-ditch fling at the hoop.

“You can do this,” Casey said, of what his team took. “It did give us something. But again, each and every night, you still have to go out there and get it done. And that’s what we’re learning right now, doing it through adversity, bad calls, missed shots…”

Doing it on the defensive end.

That’s why Sunday’s struggle against Miami, while not definitive, was instructive, in terms of emphasizing how difficult this next step, from good to great, can be.

At one point Sunday, the Heat had connected upon a comical 31 of 49 shots from the field, continuing the exceptional ball movement that they’d also surprisingly shown in the season’s first two games and causing Casey to later lament that “we’ve just got to decide collectively to guard people; I didn’t think they felt us all night.”

The Heat recorded 22 assists to the Raptors’ 11 and generally looked like the team counting on its continuity—that word again—to propel it to early and sustainable success this season.

And they’re not, not with eight new players and three new starters; Chris Bosh admitted before the game that the Heat are “trying to catch up with everybody, but I think we can continue to grind and figure it out until we get on even grounds.” The Cleveland Cavaliers have four new players in their nine-man rotation and, even though LeBron James and Kevin Love are two of them, they’d even spoke of the need for increased reps together.

The Raptors, rather, are supremely positioned to start quick, and then, as Bosh put it, for that quick start to remind them of what worked so well for them during their 42-22 run to the postseason.

That’s the way that continuity can count.

“We hope it does,” Casey said. “I think it does help us. Continuity with terminology, continuity with schemes, continuity with play calls, continuity with the familiarity with each other. They know some things are non-negotiable offensively, some things are non-negotiable defensively. That helps. Anytime you can keep teams together.”

USA TODAY Sports Amir Johnson, whose ankle-related absence was felt Sunday, said prior to sitting that “the best thing we have is chemistry, because we have players who have been together for a couple of years now.”

“It goes a long way, honestly,” DeMar DeRozan added. “Everybody knows everybody’s game. Everybody knows where they like the ball. It’s just second nature now. Sometimes. chemistry can beat talent. A lot of nights. I think we have that chemistry. We’ve been through a lot of struggles.

“Especially last year, with a lot of us learning on the go, from playing in the playoffs. It was just a lot that we took from it, that we’ve grown from. And the work that we put in this summer on top of the motivation we had from all last season, it definitely gives us the hunger to want more.”

How did that hunger manifest itself in the offseason?

Casey spoke of DeRozan specifically, as being “stronger with the basketball now,” whereas “in the past, that’s been an issue with him.” The 25-year-old just made his first All-Star team, and he’s impressed enough of his peers that Dwyane Wade, prior to Sunday’s game, asserted that “the only reason you don’t hear more about him is he’s playing in Toronto.”

He’s still a suspect long-range shooter (30.5 percent last season), so it’s critical that he be dynamic (eight free throws per game last season), but also responsible, as a ball-handler and attacker in order to produce efficient overall offensive numbers.

“We’re stronger with the ball, more confident with the ball,” Casey said of the collective. “I think that’s a product of getting a taste of playoff basketball last year. Before, I think you breathe on us a little bit, we’d cough it up. But now, we’re stronger with it, creating contact and finishing plays. That’s just a point of maturity. The same people, but worked hard this summer in the weight room, with the pads.”

That has shown in all three of their games. In their first two, victories against Atlanta and Orlando, they shot a total of 81 free throws. Sunday, they shot 39 more, with Lowry and DeRozan taking 25 of them but missing 11 of them together. Such misses could prove fatal in a postseason series, a series that, as the Raptors know too well, you can lose by a single point.

“I missed too many tonight and we just didn’t play our game,” Lowry said afterward.

That game, when they get to it, should be good enough to win the Atlantic Division, which may be the league’s weakest, with Boston and Philadelphia rebuilding, and the Knicks and Nets middling. That may even allow them to rack up enough wins to secure the No. 3 seed, with Central Division inhabitants Chicago and Cleveland the preseason conference favorites. But that alone won’t get them celebrating, not if they again fail to take their season past the first week of May.

“Honestly, we felt like we haven’t done anything,” DeRozan said. “I mean, cool, we made the playoffs, but everybody on this team definitely wants more than that. I think the work we put in this summer showed that. But, honestly, we’re just not satisfied with anything we did last year.”

Joel Auerbach/Associated Press That’s an attitude that Luol Deng can appreciate. The Heat forward was part of a team in Chicago that appeared to be surging into serious contention (improving from 41 to 49 wins in 2006-07) before falling back to 33 the next season and getting its coach, Scott Skiles, fired. Then, after two 41-win seasons, the Bulls made the major leap to 62 in 2010-11.

What’s the key to a carry-over?

“I think it’s just not getting comfortable,” Deng said. “Last year, Toronto could have creeped up on some people and stole some games, and it took people a while to realize, ‘Wow, they’re for real.’ And now, after last year, Toronto is one of the teams you’ve got to show up for. They’ve earned that respect. When you’re in the NBA, you want that respect.

“And soon we’re gonna get the same thing. Beginning of the year, the Miami Heat, you don’t know what they’re gonna be. Now you win a few games, now the next team you play, we got Houston next, I guarantee they’re gonna be up for that one.”

Especially now that the Heat are 3-0.

The Raptors are 2-1.

Both teams can, and must, get much better to have a real chance to compete for an Eastern Conference championship, considering the depth of talent on Cleveland and Chicago.

The Heat, so far, have nicely regrouped from the departure of the planet’s premier player.

The Raptors have been granted an opportunity that the 2011-12 Philadelphia 76ers (following a surprising run to the second round) and the 2012-13 Denver Nuggets (following a surprising run to the third seed) were not.

They have returned with roughly the same team and—to differentiate from those Nuggets—exactly the same coach, albeit one on more solid ground than at the start of last season, before the Raptors traded Rudy Gay and stunningly stormed the league.

That coach, Casey, won’t let his players forget that “we haven’t done anything yet,” and “the moment you think you’ve arrived is the moment that somebody’s gonna step up and knock you upside the head.”

He does have some recent models in his head (Miami and San Antonio as consistent franchises, Oklahoma City as an example of steady growth, even the Indiana core that advanced an additional step for three straight seasons before stalling in 2014).

But Casey isn’t thinking much about a victory total.

“Everybody is talking about you know, 50 wins, no, no, no,” Casey said. “Our core guys, DeRozan, [Jonas] Valanciunas and Terrence Ross are still young. They still have a lot of room to grow. That’s something they accomplished last year, was them growing and then us winning at the same time. That’s why I don’t want to put a number on anything, just continue to grow and the wins will take care of themselves.”

He has two. Two in three.

Defend better than they did Sunday, and there soon may be many more, maybe even much later in May.

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