Fans, executives, players, and all members of the NBA universe were left scratching their heads on May 11, 2018.
The Toronto Raptors fired head coach Dwane Casey after seven seasons with the franchise. Adding to the puzzle was the fact that just days before, Casey had been named the National Basketball Coaches Association Coach of the Year, and won the same title at the 2018 NBA Awards. Furthermore, the back five of Casey’s seven runs with the Raptors all resulted in playoff appearances, including a conference finals campaign in 2016.
Across the border, the Detroit Pistons were in dire need of a new head coach following the firing of Stan Van Gundy four days prior to the Casey firing. Owner Tom Gores had his mind made up of exactly who he wanted to lead his ball club.
Gores finally broke the ice by announcing the addition of Casey on June 11. Very simply, Gores knew that his team needed a boost to start winning now. This 2018-19 season is his eighth as the Pistons’ owner. Since his takeover in the summer of 2011, the Pistons have only one playoff appearance: a 2016 first round sweep to LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers… as an eight seed.
“We haven’t won. That’s clear. That’s a fact,” Gores admitted. “I’m hopeful. But we have to win.”
Casey’s response can be summed up in one short conclusion to his introduction presser: “Our time is now.”
Ever since that one-liner from Casey, the bar has been raised for the Pistons. Expectations are high, as ambitious Pistons fans hope for Casey to lead their team back to the playoffs… and win. A 4-0 start that has since sifted out to 6-6 has at least given fans glimpses of this team succeeding.
But the game on Nov. 14 had been circled on the Pistons’ calendar for quite some time, the first contest against the Raptors. Even better, it was in Toronto, featuring Casey squaring up against his old team with his new team behind him. Basketball fans, not only Pistons and Raptors fans, surely had their popcorn ready.
When asked about his return to Toronto, Casey was stern.
“I’m not going there for a reaction,” he said. “I’m going there to get a win.”
Casey and the Pistons did just that, and handed his old club just their third loss of the young season.
Blake Griffin led the scoring charge, a common formula to victory for the Pistons. He dropped 30 points and added 12 rebounds to notch a double-double, along with three assists, three steals, and two blocks.
“To win Coach of the Year and switch jobs in the same year, it’s tough. I think it meant a lot to him,” Griffin told FOX Sports Detroit’s Johnny Kane. “This was for him, for sure.”
The Raptors held an 88-77 lead after three quarters, and led by as many as 19 points in the game. But Casey’s Pistons clamped down on defense to hold the Raptors to just 16 points in the fourth. The hero was, to the surprise of some, Reggie Bullock. The guard had struggled, sinking only one shot on eight attempts… until his final try.
With 1.2 seconds remaining in regulation and the score tied at 104, Bullock cut hard from the right elbow to the basket. Jose Calderon’s inbound pass gave Bullock a decent look at a moving floater, and it found the bottom of the basket as time expired, giving the Pistons a 106-104 win.
“Coach Casey coming back home here and pulling out a win, I’m just happy for our team to be a part of it,” Bullock stated after the game. “It was my time, I guess, and I just made a shot for the team.”
Toronto fans at the packed Scotiabank Arena were left with their jaws on the floor. Casey threw his hands up in celebration as his players swarmed him from the bench and the court.
“They were pulling for me and I appreciate that tremendously,” Casey selflessly said of his new team. “It’s a player’s league. It’s about the players, it’s not about coaching, it’s about players. But again, it’s about human beings, and those human beings, they felt for me. Blake was the first one, ‘this is a great one for you, Coach,’ and that means something to you when your star player comes to you and tells you that and other players join in.”
The rally-for-Casey win puts the Pistons back above .500 at 7-6, good for sixth in the Eastern Conference. Looking ahead, they’ll have a rare four full days off to bask in the big win before hosting the Cleveland Cavaliers back at home next Monday.