TORONTO – Toronto Raptors head coach Dwane Casey used words like “growing,” “adjusting” and “learning” frequently throughout a 30-minute conference call with reporters Monday.
His young team is soaking up the NBA playoff experience and showing the Brooklyn Nets that they won’t be pushovers at the same time.
What Casey’s squad lacks in experience, it makes up for in effort. That was on full display a day earlier as Toronto showed its mettle in an 87-79 road victory that tied the best-of-seven first-round series at two games apiece.
The Raptors are focused on results this spring but they’re also trying to build a foundation they hope will lead to long-term success.
“We’re a young team, nobody expected us to be here,” Casey said. “Every experience is a new experience for us. Guys are growing in every situation.”
After a jittery start, Toronto has held its own against a tough Brooklyn lineup that features veteran players Kevin Garnett, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce and Deron Williams.
The Raptors are banged up and have had to go deep into their bench over the first four games. But they have responded well as a team in a series that will be a key building block for the future.
“Going through the playoffs is nothing but a plus for our franchise,” Casey said. “As I said, you don’t want it to be a one-time (appearance) in the playoffs and never be seen again for six more years. You want it to be a growing experience. With our core guys being so young, that should be their goal going forward.
“Now that you’ve been in the playoffs once, you know what it tastes like, you know what it feels like. You know going through the season when the coach is preaching physicality, how hard you’ve got to play, how you’ve got to take care of the ball, why he’s saying that. Because all that comes into play in playoff basketball.”
Several Toronto players are nursing injuries but most are expected to be available for Wednesday’s Game 5 at Air Canada Centre.
Among the starters, Kyle Lowry has been hobbled by a sore knee and Amir Johnson has had ankle problems. Patrick Patterson was “a little gimpy last night,” according to Casey, who added that Landry Fields (back) was “feeling much better.”
“We’re nicked up, banged up a little bit but nothing that we know of that’s major right now,” Casey said.
The series will return to Barclays Center on Friday for Game 6. If a seventh game is necessary, it will be played on Sunday in Toronto.
“This whole series for us is a learning experience because we are such a young team,” Casey said. “It’s the first time in the playoffs for a lot of our key guys. So I’m learning that they are growing from it. They are getting better in certain situations and they’re still making mistakes in certain situations.
“But the adjustment part is something that’s big for us. To be able to change things on a day’s notice or even in game situations, that’s good to know and good to see.”
DeMar DeRozan scored 24 points in the Game 4 win and Lowry added 22. The Raptors came through with key defensive stops late in the game and showed they won’t be intimidated by the Nets.
“I think as the series has gone on our guys have gotten more comfortable,” Casey said. “But again we know we’re going against a very veteran, experienced team that has seen everything and experienced everything.
“They’re going to make some adjustments, we’re going to have to continue to make adjustments as the series goes on.”
The Raptors have managed to split the first four games despite the struggles of starter Terrence Ross, who was held off the scoresheet in 16 minutes of play on Sunday.
Casey plans to stick with the youngster, noting it’s important to keep an eye on long-term development as the post-season continues.
“The only thing that will help him next year is to go through this,” he said. “He is a talented young man. This says nothing about his potential and where he’s going to be this time next year. This is still a learning experience for him. Is he going to stub his toe? Yes. But he’s still got to go through it.
“I thought his defence was superb in the first quarter last night against Deron Williams. I thought he did a good job. He’s just got to get a feel and a rhythm and a style of play with his offence.”
The Raptors should get a boost from the boisterous Air Canada Centre crowd. Casey wants his players to feed off that energy and build on what they have accomplished so far.
“I think our guys are growing as we go,” he said. “That’s the hard thing about being a young team in the playoffs. A team like Brooklyn has seen everything, they’ve experienced everything, they’ve had every atmosphere you can have in the playoffs and some of them have won championships.
“That’s the advantage you have as an experienced team and the disadvantage you have as a young team. But our guys are growing and learning as we go.”
Notes: Game 4 was a ratings hit for TSN. Overnight data from BBM Canada indicated an average audience of 885,000 viewers watched the game. It was the second most-watched Raptors game ever, just behind the team’s Game 7 second-round loss to Philadelphia in 2001, the network said in a release. Sports TV ratings have skyrocketed in recent years following the introduction of a new ratings system.