In just under two weeks, Toronto Raptors return to London, four years after making NBA history by playing the first regular season games outside North America, but this time, they aim to leave the UK with a win under their belt.
The Raptors are currently 0-2 at the O2 Arena, with both losses coming against the New Jersey [now Brooklyn] Nets in 2011. But led by coach Dwane Casey, Toronto, currently third in a competitive Eastern Conference look to beat the Orlando Magic on January 14.
Casey sat down and spoke to the international media, which included TalkBasket. Here is the complete Q&A.
Q: Are you feeling confident ahead of your trip in London? What are you going to do in your spare time in the city?
A: I know the NBA has a lot of things in the community that are scheduled. Most of us are bringing our families with us and everybody is excited to see London. We are also excited to be able to share the Toronto Raptors brand around in England and in London. We’re excited about it, we’re not excited about playing Orlando, because they’re an excellent up and coming young team and it’s going to be a tough match for us. They’re an Eastern Conference foe. We had a game against them earlier (this season) they beat us by two or three points, it was a close game, they broke our winning-streak at the time. It’s a good match for us and we’re excited about being there playing the game and sharing the NBA and Raptors brand around the world.
Q: This season the power balance seems to have shifted from the Western to the Eastern Conference, what do you think is the reason for that?
A: One is that more than anything else a lot of teams have built excellent programs around the Eastern Conference. The offensive and defensive balance of each team in the Eastern Conference has grown. I think a lot of it is that many teams in the East have done an excellent job developing their own players, whereas the last couple of years the same players were on the same teams, but they were younger, not ready to do battles on a nightly basis and compete for a conference championship. But now, those players have gotten better, they’ve grown and their health is at the top of the line in the Eastern Conference. So I think a lot of the internal growth of each team and of each program has gotten better in the Eastern Conference and finally those young players have grown up and established themselves. The team we’re playing in London, Orlando, is a prime example of that. Those young players have taken big steps and are improving as far as their level of play is concerned.
Q: When you see teams like the Golden State Warriors and what they did last year, do you consciously say, “Can we incorporate that into our system?”
A: I think the way Golden State is playing has been a trend for the last two years, I think they’ve taken it to another level with the emergence of their players, Stephen Curry and the way they shoot the basketball, Thompson and those guys… they’ve taken it to another level. I think analytical three get to the rim philosophy has been a trend. I came in the league in ’94/’95 and each year you can see the trend going that way, with more shooting. I remember a long time ago, coaches would rail on players about “you’re shooting too many threes”, get a better shot, get a closer shot and that type of things. Now, if you have three-point shooters you’re encouraging those shots, good three-point shots. Golden State has been doing that for a while. We have implemented that in the last few years within our system. Our guards have worked on the three-point shooting in the summer time. A lot of teams are doing that now, but Golden State is probably the top of the league as far as utilizing the three-point shot.
Q: I was wondering what you thought of Adam Silver’s plans to bring four franchises to Europe in the next 20 years?
A: I think the league is going that way. It is one of those things that you have to think that there is a lot of logistics that have to be worked out as far as travel is concerned, I know Adam is really concerned about the wear and tear on players’ body. If you can get the logistics to work then there is some great fans in Europe, all over Europe and Asia. So I think that the globally league is growing and has grown tremendously since I first came in the league in the ‘90s and I think it’s going to continue to grow. I think just getting the logistics worked out as far as getting a team there, I don’t see why not, I don’t foresee any stumbling blocks in the next 10 years for having a team there.
Q: You’ve got one game in nine days with the NBA London trip, but you’re going to have quite tired minds. Do you see that as a good thing for your team or would you rather stay in a consistent schedule?
A: I think going to Europe is an exciting thing for our franchise, our organisation. I think globally it is great for the league to have a game in Europe. You always look at your schedule and say, “How is that going to affect the next game coming back or our schedule?” prior to go to an European trip, but again, I think the positives outweigh the negatives as far as the league is concerned, as far as the game is concerned and I think as much as we can get our brand as the organisation globally and around the world the better. I think we have a healthy home schedule after we get back from London, so that would help us get back and acclimated to the time change.
Q: How different is for you to maintain the level of play from last year to this year? What are some of the biggest adjustments you had to make?
A: It’s a huge difference going from the hunter to the hunted and our program has grown over the last five years, getting to a level now where we are, considered one of the top teams in the Eastern Conference and we’re trying to maintain that is the hardest thing to understand. How hard you need to play each and every night and not only that, each and every possession of the game, because we need everybody’s best shot. We saw that last night from Chicago, Jimmy Butler had one of the best games of his career, and so we’re going to get those types of performances from other teams, and we’ve got to be mentally and physically ready and prepared to understand the level you have to play at. Our guys are learning to do that, it’s been hard to maintain that type of intensity and focus, it’s difficult, it’s mentally and physically draining, but I much rather be the hunted than at the bottom trying to build up and we’re getting from the middle of the ladder to closer to the top of the ladder with our program, but we have to take that mentality each time we take a step on the floor.
Q: Bismack [Biyombo] has been a great addition to the team. How important is he and how do you see him developing in the future for the Raptors’ organisation?
A: He’s huge, I know he’s a free agent after this season, but he’s been a great addition to our team, his energy level, his defensive approach, his spirit has been unshakeable, it’s something that is contagious for our team, something that other players have taken up on. His presence has really helped us, especially our younger players. Valanciunas watches how he prepares for the game, how he communicates during the game and I think this is going to help him become a better player. As a coach I’m selfish, and I would love to have him back. I know he’s a free agent next year but I’m sure that’s something that Masai and our front office people will handle at the right time.
Q: How important is it for you to grow the Raptors brand globally?
A: It’s huge. I think with the international flavour and international population that we have in Toronto, and the relatives that people have around the world, growing the brand globally is huge. We have some great fans throughout Canada, in the city of Toronto, but again, the more we can grow our brand, make sure we have the Raptors logo, and also the NBA logo around the world, I think that’s huge as far as we’re concerned, and Pops [Mensah-Bonsu] was a big part of that when he was here a few years ago, a very popular player, the way he played, the way he presented himself, and Masai [Ujiri] represents Africa, being the first African general manager president of an NBA franchise, I think it’s just great for the NBA as a whole and also for our organisation MLSE to be around the world.
Q: You said all you wanted for Christmas was to win, what are your chances of winning the Eastern Conference and eventually winning the Championship?
A: Each night we go out and we want to win. I think we need to continue to improve defensively, we are taking a couple of steps forward and a couple of steps back defensively, like last night we scored 113 points, which is more than enough points to win, but in the crucial part of the game down the stretch we had some lapses defensively, we need to cut out those lapses especially in the last three or four minutes of the game.
Q: You’re going to have some time to practice in London, something you don’t normally do during the season. How are you going to maximise this?
A: We’ll have a couple of days of intense practice. I don’t know how long we can go, but we intend to have a couple of good days of practice there in London, intense because like you’ve said we have a few days together that will give us an opportunity to really get some good practice and we need it. We are trying to incorporate two new starters that are coming back from injuries back into our line-up, so as much practice time as we can get because in the last couple of weeks we’ve had a game/day-off, game/day-off which is not conducive to having a good hard intense practice.