This time there was a finish. This time the Toronto Raptors wouldn't blow a game in which they had a fourth-quarter lead, the way they'd done on 16 previous occasions in 2012-13, but Sunday's 100-96 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers also suggested that Dwane Casey's plans for rookies Jonas Valanciunas and Terrence Ross are going to upset some folks.
Simply put: there will be none of this letting the kids have carte blanche. In a stand that echoed somewhat Randy Carlyle's lecture to the local press about why there was no point in questioning his bedside manner with Nazem Kadri, Casey reiterated that even with Andrea Bargnani now a long-term doubt after aggravating elbow ligaments that caused him to miss 26 games earlier this season, Valanciunas was going to have to earn his minutes. The same goes for Ross, who didn't see the court in the fourth quarter on Sunday after scoring 14 points in 28 minutes 24 seconds. There is a difference between Carlyle's status and that of Casey, of course. The Leafs head coach has 22 games left and his team is very much in the thick of the playoffs; the Raptors head coach, meanwhile, has four fewer games remaining than his counterpart without a realistic shot at the playoffs and with some sort of front office comeuppance seemingly on the horizon.
That Valanciunas saw as much time as he did in the fourth quarter was down to Amir Johnson picking up his fifth personal foul with 6:13 remaining in regulation time. Johnson was a beast with 17 points and 16 rebounds as the Raptors rebounded from a 55-46 half-time deficit by locking down the Cavaliers in the third quarter, when they held the visitors to 19 points and 25-per-cent shooting. And they pulled it out down the stretch, thanks to good defensive decisions by Landry Fields and smart decision-making from Kyle Lowry, who had 15 points and nine boards on a night when the Raptors had six players in double figures. Valanciunas finished with 11 points and seven rebounds in 32 minutes and 57 seconds.
Casey is unapologetic for his tough love with the kids.
"I told guys at the half that they would earn minutes," he said. "That's what we're going to do these last few games. Even though we want to find out what we have here, guys are going to have to earn their minutes. Again, guys will come in and out, but they won't stay out there and just play because they're rookies. Nah … it doesn't work that way. We're cheating the program if we coach those guys that way. That's the way it's going to be."
But in one area of the team, Casey seems clear. "We have to live with him [Ross] and Jonas," Casey said. "I had to get Jonas out of the game at the end, bless his heart. 'Coach, he's coming really fast,' he told me. I said: 'Guess what? They're all coming really fast.' The speed of the game and everything goes fast for rookies. I don't care who you are or what level you're at. I've been at this a long time and seen every rookie some through and that's what they have to learn: the speed of the game. They don't play nice. They don't play slow. As a coach, it's my job to make sure they're grown the right way, coached the right way because if you don't you end up with a diluted product."
There is much to wonder about as the Raptors play out the string en route to the playoff desert. Lowry made smart decisions Sunday night; that hasn't always been the case and that's a deadly tendency for a point guard. And just as his blazing arrival at the start of the season seemed something less than transcendent as the full rigours of the NBA schedule started to leave their mark on the Raptors, so too has Rudy Gay's impact on the team suddenly become a not-every night thing. Gay was held out of the lineup with a stiff back and his absence was noticed even on a night when the Cavaliers lost Kyrie Irving to a bruised shoulder, but in recent games it has become easier to see why so many in the NBA have mixed views of Gay and see him as slightly less than just hugely over-rated. So much is unclear about the Raptors, it makes sense that we might also finish the season not knowing what the team has in Ross and Valanciunas, too.