TORONTO (CP) – In the immediate moments after the Raptors’ 101-87 victory over Detroit on Wednesday, Toronto coach Dwane Casey sat down to watch the dying minutes of the Miami-Brooklyn game.
Amir Johnson checked the result on his phone.
With 20 games left on a thrilling season that sees Toronto poised for a playoff position for the first time in six years, the Raptors are excited, and thinking about little else.
“Hell, yeah. Without a doubt, man,” DeMar DeRozan said. “That’s why I work so hard, and it always bugged me going home early, and just sitting there doing nothing. It used to make me so hungry just watching.”
DeRozan poured in 25 points, while Johnson scored 20 and grabbed nine rebounds in a game that was no thriller but served its purpose one step closer to the team’s second Atlantic Division title and its first playoff berth since 2008.
The Nets, who edged Miami 96-95 on Wednesday, are three games behind Toronto for the division title.
“I’ve got a lot of friends that play in the playoffs and I had to hear all summer them talking about their experience in the playoffs. It always pushed me even further,” DeRozan said. “You just want to get there. Not even for myself, just for this organization as well. It definitely feels good that we’re moving in the right direction now.”
Kyle Lowry had 19 points and six assists, while Jonas Valanciunas had 13 rebounds to go with eight points for the Raptors (36-27), who’ve won 10 of their last 13 games.
The affair wasn’t pretty. The Raptors coughed up double-digit leads a couple of times including an 18-point third-quarter advantage that the Pistons whittled down to just five in a game they could have put out of reach far earlier.
The Raptors went into the fourth quarter with a narrow 74-69 lead in front of the 18,247 fans at the Air Canada Centre that braved the rare March snowstorm. They scored the first nine points of the fourth to go up by 14. A wide-open three by Kentavious Caldwell-Pope with 8:23 to go cut the Raptors’ lead to nine points, but that was as close as the struggling Pistons would come.
Brandon Jennings topped Detroit (25-40) with 24 points, while Andre Drummond had 16 points and nine rebounds and Greg Monroe had 13 points to go with 10 boards.
Ugly or not, the Raptors were happy to tick off another win.
“Absolutely. I’m ready,” Johnson said, when asked if he’s thinking post-season. “We’re going to win as many games as we possibly can going down the home stretch, collect these wins.”
Casey said he’s happy his players are enjoying their success, but warns that they’ve got to focus on themselves down the stretch.
“It is fun. But we’ve got to take care of our business. We can watch (what other teams are doing), but if we don’t take care of our business, it’s not worth crap,” the coach said. “I’m more concerned with what we do, and how we’re playing, and losing leads, moreso than anything else.
“I hope (the Raptors) are enjoying it but still understand how hard it is, getting there first, and then after you get there, it’s even harder.”
DeRozan, who’s in his fifth season in Toronto thus has never stepped on the court for a playoff game, said he has always forced himself to watch the post-season, regardless of how frustrating it was.
“I had to, just to understand and see how it was,” he said. “You’re playing the same team possibly seven times in a row. Seeing the different schemes. Just trying to get a knowledge of how it’s played every single day.”
He said he’s particularly thrilled to be sharing this season’s success with Johnson, who last made the playoffs with Detroit in 2009.
“That’s my dog, man. It’s definitely cool,” DeRozan said. “I knew Amir, and Amir knew me when I was running around with the same pair of dirty shoes on, playing basketball. Amir is a helluva dude, how hard he works, and how good of a person he is.”
Johnson was key Wednesday night in containing Detroit’s frontcourt what Casey had predicted would be a “huge test” for Toronto. The Pistons lead the league in points in the paint and offensive rebounds, thanks largely to Drummond.
The Raptors were effective inside, outrebounding Detroit 54-39 and outscoring their visitors in the paint 44-38.
Casey wasn’t thrilled with the second unit, saying it was “playing in mud a little bit.”
“We needed to keep the pace going, I thought the pace slowed down,” he said. “For whatever reason we got stagnant and lost a couple of leads and that’s something we have to work on.”
The Raptors raced out to a nine-point lead four minutes into the game, stretching it to 14 on a pullup jumper by John Salmons before ending the first quarter up 29-21.
The Raptors went almost five minutes without a point to open the second, and Bynum drained a three with 8:37 left in the half to tie the game 29-29. The Raptors managed to cobble together another 10-point lead and took a 52-45 advantage into the dressing room at halftime.
A three-pointer by Lowry stretched Toronto’s lead to 18 points just four-and-a-half minutes into the third but the Raptors couldn’t maintain it. The Pistons ended the quarter on a 14-2 run to send the game into the fourth with Toronto leading 74-69.
NOTES: Patrick Patterson missed his third straight game with an elbow injury. The game was the first of three straight at home. The Raptors host the Memphis Grizzlies on Friday and the Phoenix Suns on Sunday before playing a pair on the road at Atlanta and New Orleans. The Raptors have won four of their last five against the Pistons.