TORONTO - If the Toronto Raptors are fuelled by the chips on their shoulders, Dwane Casey firmly planted a couple more there Tuesday.
And it's good timing for a team off a disappointing 2-4 road trip that cost them the Eastern Conference lead.
Casey was angry Tuesday, first, by the fact Kyle Lowry is ranked a lowly fourth among Eastern Conference guards in all-star voting. And second, the coach was cranky over post-game comments levelled at Toronto by Phoenix Suns coach Jeff Hornacek.
The one positive out of his post-practice chat with reporters: DeMar DeRozan is still on pace to return this week, despite missing practice to undergo more diagnostic tests.
Lowry was named the East player of the month for December, but he remains fourth in voting for next month's all-star game behind Washington's John Wall, Miami's Dwyane Wade, and Kyrie Irving of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
"Very surprised. I hope our fans get out and vote, don't put it in the hands of the coaches," said Casey — fans vote for the starters, while coaches vote for the reserves. "And if the coaches don't do it, I'm probably going to get physical and fight with those guys."
Casey isn't a big believer in fan voting.
"Sometimes fans have their favourites, and it's nothing to do with basketball," the coach said. "It's not fair, but it's the system we have right now, and the only thing Kyle can do is go out and continue to compete and play with that chip on his shoulder, and show the league, to embarrass the fans and let them know that they made a mistake, or are making a mistake in their voting."
Hornacek got under Casey's skin after the Raptors' 125-109 loss to Phoenix on Sunday. The Suns coach was quoted as saying, "We could have won by 40 if we left our starters in."
"The last time I checked, we beat them here at our place," Casey said, in reference to the Raptors' 104-100 win over the Suns on Nov. 24 at the Air Canada Centre. "Those types of things put a chip on our shoulder. Kyle being fourth in voting, that should put a chip on our shoulder. (Hornacek) saying they should have beat us, how weak the Eastern Conference is, that should put a chip on our shoulder.
"Because the last time I checked, we beat them at our place, and they beat us at their place, no matter what the score was. Karma is something in this league. We've got to play with that edge, and that type of edginess to make sure that we prove that we're for real."
The Raptors (24-10) were happy to be back at the ACC on Tuesday, where they'll play their next six games, beginning Thursday against the Charlotte Hornets.
Their road trip began with a loss to Chicago and solid wins over the Los Angeles Clippers and Denver Nuggets, but began to unravel with an overtime loss in Portland. Mental and emotional fatigue set in at that point, Casey said. The Raptors ended the trips with blowout losses to Golden State and Phoenix, resulting in Toronto's first three-game losing skid in more than a year.
"But any of that is no excuse for this league, because this is a non-forgiving league, emotional, physical, whatever fatigue you have, the league doesn't feel sorry for you," the coach said. "We got our butts whooped, now we've got to come back here and regroup, refocus, especially on the defensive end, and get our act together."
No surprise, defence was the focus of what Lowry called a short, "crisp" practice. Casey reached way back to his defensive teachings at training camp, he said, to reinforce his principles on that end of the floor.
And having DeRozan back in the lineup should help tremendously. The Raptors were in top-10 in the league defensively when the team's all-star and leading scorer tore a tendon in his groin on Nov. 28. Since his injury, they've dropped to 22nd in points allowed.
In DeRozan's absence, the Raptors have morphed into a faster, running team.
"I think that affected our defence," Casey said. "DeMar coming back will give us more of a slow-down, semi-postup game, which will slow us down a little bit, which will in turn help our defence."
DeRozan rejoined practices last week, although it remains to be seen how quickly he'll be back at full speed.
"He's getting there. He's getting better," Lowry said of his teammate. "I think he's going to come back aggressive. . . we can't force feed him, we've got to be patient with him."
Lowry joined Chris Bosh as the only Raptors players ever to receive player of the month honours (Bosh won it in January of 2007). Lowry, who posted averages of 22.3 points, 8.9 assists and 4.2 rebounds to lead the team to an 11-4 record in December, said the honour was "cool" and an incentive to work even harder.
Teammate Patrick Patterson weighed in about the honour, saying an all-star nomination would be a better way to reward Lowry.
"Of course, he'll get player-of-the-weeks, he'll get player-of the months, but the only recognition I care about with Kyle is that he gets all-star," Patterson said. "We all know he's an all-star on this team and we want the rest of the world to know that, so hopefully before all is said and done, he will be an all-star and get the recognition he deserves."
Note: Prime Minister Stephen Harper urged Canadian basketball fans to vote Lowry into the all-star game. "Canadian basketball fans should get behind @Klow7, who deserves to be an NBA All Star," he posted on Twitter account Tuesday.