TORONTO - Winning the game was not important, Dwane Casey repeated leading up to his team's sixth exhibition game Monday.
Apparently nobody told the young group of reserves that shared the floor as the Raptors' heroics forced two overtime periods before clinching the victory in a game that exceeded three hours in duration.
For Casey this game, like the five that proceeded it, was all about finding cohesion amongst his second unit, determining the right combinations as he works to trim down his rotation and seeing what he has in the young players who will make up the end of his bench. On Monday all of that meant playing to win.
With 11 seconds remaining, down two coming out of a timeout, Casey considered going for the win; an all or nothing three-point attempt that may have appeased the working media, many of whom grew restless as the rare preseason thriller crawled along. Instead, Landry Fields inbounded to Tyler Hansbrough on the elbow, who faked the pass back to Fields and blew by an unsuspecting Metta World Peace for the two-handed slam to tie the game.
"I owed it to the players," Casey said of his decision to force overtime. "We've got to try to execute down the stretch. It crossed my mind [to go for the three] but it wasn't the right thing to do."
"It was good for us to learn," he explained following Toronto's 123-120 win over the Knicks. "I know it's excruciating for [the media] to have to stay up late and miss [their] deadlines but it's good for [the players]."
No starter played in the fourth quarter or in either of the extra periods as Casey continued to experiment with his reserves, many of whom have failed to stand out over the first six games. Hansbrough and Terrence Ross, who both figure to be mainstays off the bench this season, came through down the stretch while Quincy Acy, Dwight Buycks and Julyan Stone - who still hasn't made the team but is a safe bet to snag the final roster spot - played like they have something to prove.
"The guys fought, scraped [and] got their way back into the game," Casey said. "It's a great experience for those young kids to be able to play in those situations because in the regular season most likely, unless something catastrophic happens, they're not going to be in the game."
"It prepares you for future games," said Ross, who scored a game-high 27 points including a buzzer beating three-pointer that forced double overtime. "If you ever get in that situation you know what to do and what not to do."
"You really just get comfortable in that situation," he continued, "because the first time you go out there it's always kind of nerve-racking no matter how many times you go over it in practice so just getting that live experience helps."
Raining Ross Triples
With 4.1 seconds remaining in the first overtime period, Julyan Stone found Ross - the inbounder - coming off a screen. The sophomore rose up, faded away and drilled the game-tying triple at the buzzer. By that point Ross was on fire. The Raptors' guard was just one-for-three, all three-point attempts, through seven minutes in the first three quarters. He finished the game seven-for-15, including six-of-13 from long range, in just over 25 minutes.
"My teammates kept passing me the ball," he said, "so I knew if they were passing to me I was going to shoot it. They gave me the confidence to keep shooting so that's what I did."
At times Ross has been the most impressive player on the floor during the preseason, scoring most of his points in bunches. Other times, specifically early in games, he's gone relatively unnoticed, something Casey has noticed and is working with him to correct.
"It took Terrence a little while to get going," the Raptors' coach said of Ross, who should be the second unit's biggest source of offence if he can become more consistent. "Once he got going he was okay but he's got to do that as soon as he comes in [the game] in that second quarter."
Shades of Hakeem
Once again in the preseason DeMar DeRozan put on a show in the paint, completely dominating smaller defenders in the post and making it look easy. From his trusted up and under move, to a devastating spin that made rookie Tim Hardaway Jr. look silly, to the fake behind the back pass that fooled former defensive player of the year Tyson Chandler en route to an easy lay in, DeRozan continued to turn heads and earn high praise.
"I thought his footwork when they had single coverage [on him] was big-time," Casey said of DeRozan's work in the post. "He looked like he'd been working with Hakeem [Olajuwon] down there."
"It's a footwork thing," said DeRozan, who has been studying film of great post-up guards including Kobe Bryant and Andre Miller. "Understanding how a player's going to play me and just using my advantages. I know if I get a player in the air either I get the foul or get the lay-up. I just have different options and I'm starting to understand that more."
DeRozan had 21 points in just under 30 minutes, shooting 8-for-15 from the field, including his first two treys of the preseason. After going a perfect 5-of-5 in the paint Monday, he is now shooting 19-for-25 (76 per cent) in the restricted area, where he has taken 43 per cent of his field goal attempts during the exhibition season.
Chemistry on the Wing
The league, or at least the Knicks, have noticed the evolution in DeRozan's game as he's beginning to see double teams intended to put pressure on him as a ball handler.
"I thought his passes out of the double teams were huge," Casey said. "I think Rudy [Gay] got a three off of one of them. So he's got to punish them with the pass as much as his scoring out of the post."
DeRozan improved his ball handling and court vision last season and looks to be taking the next step playing alongside another dangerous offensive weapon in Rudy Gay.
Gay finished with 19 points on 5-of-10 shooting, also hitting a couple of three-pointers, in just under 26 minutes.
Continued Search for Second-Unit Symmetry
Again, the group of Ross, Fields, Hansbrough, D.J. Augustin and Austin Daye struggled to begin the second quarter on Monday. That group, which has given up early leads on a couple occasions this fall, gave up a one-point advantage that the starters had earned coming out of the opening frame and allowed the Knicks to rip off 15-6 run before Casey was forced to call a quick timeout and regroup.
"I was disappointed in the approach in the second quarter," he admitted. "When you come in the game there's nobody guaranteed minutes. We can't come in soft. We've got to get rid of that tag of teams coming in, pushing us under the bucket, grabbing offensive rebounds, taking the ball away from us with us being non-physical and I thought in the second quarter we did that."
The Raptors, who finished the game with a 57-52 advantage on the boards, were outrebounded by nine in the first half. Augustin and Daye played just seven minutes and gave way to Buycks, Stone and Acy in the second half.
An Uneventful Return for Bargnani
Andrea Bargnani made his second preseason return to Toronto in a span of 10 days. The former Raptors forward was booed by the sparse crowd during pre-game introductions but the harsh reception was a bit more subdued than it was during his first game back and tailed off as the night went on.
Bargnani scored 13 points, five of them from the free-throw line, on 4-of-12 shooting after starting off 1-of-8.
The Raptors will host Memphis at the Air Canada Centre on Wednesday. Hear it live on TSN 1050 Radio at 7pm et. With just two exhibition games remaining, Casey has indicated he will begin to tighten the rotation and give his starters more playing time, including minutes in the fourth quarter as they prepare for the start of the regular season.