Warning: Story contains coarse language
TORONTO - After a whirlwind of a day filled with nostalgia and questions about his exit from Toronto, Dwane Casey found himself in a familiar setting Wednesday night, celebrating a victory at (the newly named) Scotiabank Arena. The only difference being he was celebrating with the road team.
As Casey held court during his postgame media scrum, a Pistons staffer excitedly told someone on the phone named Tom, or "T.G.," that he couldn't get to Casey at the moment due to the swarm of reporters between them. As Casey left the arena following Detroit's 108-106 win, he confirmed to theScore that it was, in fact, Pistons owner Tom Gores on the phone. Gores called from his son's high school basketball game to personally congratulate his head coach on a thrilling victory over Casey's former team.
Try as he may to dismiss Wednesday's result as just another game in the gruelling marathon of a season, it was obvious to anyone watching - and apparently, to Gores - that a win over the Raptors, on the road, in a game Toronto led by 19 at one point, meant more to Casey and the Pistons than any of their previous six so far this season.
"They were pulling for me, and I appreciate that tremendously," Casey told reporters postgame. "It's a player's league. It's not about coaching. It's about the players, but it's also about human beings, and those human beings, they felt for me. I was trying to deflect it as much as I could, but Blake (Griffin) was the first one, (he said) 'this is a great win for you, coach.' That means something to you, when your star player comes to you and tells you that, and other players join in."
Griffin, who dealt with a stunning midseason trade from the Clippers last year, didn't need to be told this would be a meaningful night for Casey.
"He would never say it, but any time you come back to a place you spent so much time in, and had so much success - obviously the fans love him here," Griffin said. "To win Coach of the Year and switch jobs in the same year is tough, and I think it meant a lot to him."
Through most of the first three quarters, the only positive for Casey and the Pistons came in the form of a video tribute the Raptors played for Casey during a timeout, eliciting a rousing, standing ovation from the Toronto crowd.
Casey told reporters after the game that while he appreciated the crowd's response, he didn't even notice the video until Griffin pointed it out to him.
"He was drawing up a play," Griffin laughed postgame. "They had finished the video, (the fans) had started clapping. I was watching the video, and the play. He was about to go over it again, and I was like, 'Man, coach, we got it. Stand up.' He deserved that. That's a special moment."
As the third quarter wore on and the Pistons sliced deeper and deeper into the Raptors' lead, Casey grew more animated and intense on the sidelines. He crouched into a defensive stance and barked out instructions as the Raptors brought the ball up the court, clapping his hands ferociously to keep his team defensively engaged. When Reggie Bullock beat the buzzer for a game-winner, Casey raised his hands, hopped, pumped his fists and walked the length of the court to celebrate with the rest of the Pistons, allowing himself a chance to be swept up by the moment.
"I fucking loved it," Pistons forward Stanley Johnson said of Casey's intense demeanour down the stretch. "I fucking loved it. He's always super competitive. That's how he is, but knowing his history here, - I didn't even know he knocked off all the accolades he did until I watched the video. He was amped, and it helped us amp up more, too. When you see a coach into the game - and he came to play - you have no choice but to put your mind in the game as well. I was really happy we could do it for him."
Since the day he was introduced as Pistons head coach, Casey has had high praise for Johnson's defensive upside, often mentioning the 22-year-old is physically built to defend the likes of LeBron James. It may not have been James on the other end the court Wednesday in Toronto, but Johnson's second-half defense on Kawhi Leonard played a central role in Detroit's comeback.
"He's a very positive guy," Johnson said of Casey. "His confidence is everything. He tells his players they can jump off the moon.
"And with the play he drew up at the end, to end it, as well, I think it's alright."
Casey and his staff actually drew up two would-be winning plays in the game's final two seconds. The first freed Glenn Robinson III for what looked like a game-winning alley-oop before Raptors big man Pascal Siakam blew that up with a thunderous block. The second, filled with screens and misdirection that also allowed Griffin to fade to the perimeter for a potentially open trey, sprung Bullock's winner.
"This isn't like we just discovered this for the first time today," Griffin said of Casey's impressive play-calling. "We put in plays like that all the time in practice. He demands execution, and we executed. Maybe to Toronto fans, or certainly their GM, maybe it was a surprise," Griffin quipped. "But not to us."
And with that parting shot from Griffin, Casey and the Pistons departed Toronto for the first and only time this season (barring a postseason showdown). Their next 69 games, much like their first 12, can be labeled "just another game." Whether Casey wants to admit it or not, the one that mattered, at least on a personal level, is out of the way.