There are two things players see as they are exiting the Toronto Raptors locker room on a game night. Taped to the door is a printout containing the names and photos of the three officials working the game. To the left of the door is a 1300-pound boulder.
That boulder has been there since head coach Dwane Casey took over in 2011. Knowing he was entering a rebuilding opportunity, it served as a physical reminder of the mantra he hoped would guide his team through growing pains.
The Raptors are not the only team in the league to use the “pound the rock” motto. Casey was inspired by a quote from social reformer/activist Jacob Riis: “When nothing seems to help, I go look at a stonecutter hammering away at his rock perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not that blow that did it, but all that had gone before.”
Missing the postseason in his first two years in Toronto, Casey continued to stick with his defence-first approach. A former assistant with the championship-winning Dallas Mavericks, Casey saw firsthand how necessary mental toughness is to survive an 82-game season and playoff run. He wanted his team to never be outworked, regardless of the situation or opponent.
After the trade that sent Rudy Gay to Sacramento in exchange for Greivis Vasquez, Patrick Patterson, Chuck Hayes and John Salmons, Casey had the bench he needed and a locker room that recognized more change could come quickly.
“We knew if we lost it was going to get blown up,” Kyle Lowry said at his exit interview with media on Monday. “That’s just the fact that, once we made the trade, if we would have lost a little more I probably wouldn’t be sitting here today, just being honest. I think we all knew that as a team we had a chance to do something even when we were 6-12…we went from 6-12 to the three seed and winning 48 games.”
On their way to setting that franchise record for regular-season wins, the Raptors found the identity their coach had been preaching since that boulder was lugged into the locker room.
Embrace The Underdog
Things started falling into place on a December road trip where the team fought to earn wins in Dallas and Oklahoma City.
With everyone counting against them, they developed an us-against-the-world mentality. Encouraged by their coach to embrace their underdog status, they worked tirelessly to prove to the front office that they should be kept together.
The Raptors always fought. They rarely blew teams out, but they never got embarrassed, either. Despite a series of close losses before the trade, Toronto ended up with the league’s best fourth-quarter point differential. Down to the last possession of Game 7 against the Brooklyn Nets, this group never gave up.
“Looking back on everything, it seems like everything happened so fast,” DeMar DeRozan said. “From the trade so early on to everybody not knowing what was going to happen, people really doubting us, counting us out. Using that tanking word, whatever.
“We’re definitely pleased with how we played every single night because we knew we laid it out there every single night and it was no question about that.”
The biggest reason the players gave for their success was the camaraderie and lack of ego in the locker room.
“This group of guys is really good,” Jonas Valanciunas said. “That wasn’t just a team, they were family members. It’s really important to keep same attitude, keep [things the] same way in the locker room.”
Casey Committed To His Principles
The main offseason priority for the organization will be trying to lock up Lowry who will be a free agent. Working in Toronto’s favor is how strongly he feels about his teammates.
“I think we’ve got young guys and we’ve got a few older guys, and we’ve got a mixture of guys,” Lowry said. “The young guys are hilarious, and then the older guys just laughing at the young guys, at some of the things they say. All they care about, they want to mess around and play one-on-one and joke all day. It’s a good mixture. It’s a great mixture, actually. I said it yesterday: the best 14 other guys I’ve had in a locker room in my career.”
With a group banded together through a season that threatened to pull them apart, Casey and the Raptors need to continue growing, but have come a long way since they began their partnership.
“One thing I respect about coach Casey, man, he’s been consistent,” DeRozan said. “He’s been the same Dwane Casey since he’s been here. Preached the same thing, told us to stick with the same principles and they’ll work. We did it, and everything he said came together like he said it would. And you gotta respect coach Casey, he never changed up.”
While it’s always easier to praise an approach after it has brought results, it has been Casey’s commitment to his principles that has convinced his team to adopt his mindset.
From the early days of a training camp filled with tanking questions to the early days of summer filled with hope for the upcoming season, the Raptors have started to carve out their identity.
When they return to Air Canada Centre in September, the boulder will be waiting, serving as a stationary reminder of the resilient team they have become.