Truth is, Dwane Casey had a lot of us at "Dirk Nowitzki."
When the Toronto Raptors head coach signalled his intentions back in December to treat Andrea Bargnani like a grown-up, it wasn't difficult to feel the first gusts of culture change blowing through the Air Canada Centre.
Dirk Nowitzki. Casey wasn't saying that Bargnani was as good as Nowitzki. But he was saying that he believed he could put in some plays for Bargnani that the Dallas Mavericks used for Nowitzki. And suddenly it became okay to do more than simply shrug or roll your eyes whenever Bargnani's name came up. Suddenly, it was easy to see how Bargnani might actually be able to contribute to a successful team. Shockingly, he bought in, until a calf injury effectively ruined his season.
The Raptors lowered the curtain on their regular season Thursday night, beating the New Jersey Nets 98-67 in front of an announced crowd of 18,161 after Toronto native Jamaal Magloire addressed them beforehand and promised playoffs next season. Uh, thanks for that.
The Raptors, who'd already cleared out their lockers before the game because of Friday night's Red Hot Chili Peppers show at the ACC, used just seven players, with Aaron Gray and DeMar DeRozan joining the usual wounded.
"Give us some starters," yelled one fan with the score 36-20 at the 6:00 mark of the second quarter. No chance: these were two 22-44 teams and Casey never even called a time-out while Ben Uzoh had the franchise's first triple-double in 11 years: 12 points, 12 assists and 11 rebounds in 46 minutes. Ed Davis had a career-high 24 points and Linas Kleiza and Amir Johnson never got off the bench.
The Nets, who will become one of the NBA's sexiest franchises next season in Brooklyn, dressed eight players.
The Raptors were not bad enough to completely satisfy members of Tank Nation, who wanted the team to be so lousy that it would have the best shot of getting the first overall pick out of the draft lottery. What this season proved once again is that players don't tank; organizations do. You can't bring in a new coach and tell him to preach defence and surround him with young players and others playing for contracts and expect the team to tank.
The Raptors were 30th in defensive efficiency in each of the past two seasons. Going into Thursday night's game, they were 14th in defensive efficiency, and they played Eastern Conference defence. "As far as culture and defence, we accomplished what we wanted," Casey said. "But we did not get there offensively."
Bargnani's injury had a great deal to do with that, but so did DeRozan's continued inconsistency. Neither DeRozan nor Davis, the two most important young players on the team, progressed as much as the staff wanted but with a regular offseason and a head coach who has the freedom to get in their grills about conditioning – remember, because of the lockout Casey could not contact his players last summer – there is every reason to think they can show up bigger and stronger.
It was telling that before Thursday's game, Casey said he was looking forward to "getting the roster completed this summer."
The Raptors have plenty of cap space, this year's first-round pick, Jonas Valanciunis, is on the way, as well as another high pick this year and possibly a free-agent. There will be blue-sky talks about Steve Nash – why shouldn't the Raptors inquire? – and Casey has already told people the team still needs to get more grinders. So there is work ahead for general manager Bryan Colangelo, but at least he can proceed knowing he had the right man on the bench.
We suspected that, you know? He had us at Nowitzki – and, apparently, he had his players, too.