TORONTO - Dwane Casey was visibly put off when faced with a question regarding his team's recent success and their upcoming stretch of winnable games prior to Monday's contest against the league-worst Milwaukee Bucks.
"[People] keep asking that question and it's not a legit question because we don't have that right, we haven't arrived yet," Casey responded. "We've got to take each game at a time, each possession at a time and look at it that way."
"That's the message I'm sending to [the players]. We've got to play basketball and be focused and not look at records."
League standings are not welcome in the locker room, Casey maintained. If they were, they would show the Raptors in sole possession of third place in the Eastern Conference, just barely ahead of the Hawks, following a decisive 116-94 victory over the seven-win Bucks.
Since an early-December trade reversed their trajectory, Casey has kept his team focused. They have defeated the league's best in wins over the Thunder and Pacers, they have fought hard on the road in Indiana and Miami and, perhaps most importantly, they've taken care of business against teams that many may have expected them to look past. They haven't.
"No, you can't [take anyone lightly]," DeMar DeRozan said following a 19-point, seven-rebound, seven-assist performance in his team's 22-point win. "It doesn't matter who we play, it's an NBA team. Besides us there's 29 other teams in this league and we prepare for each one of them the same."
Casey is getting through to his troops, whether they realize it or not.
"He said that [too]?" DeRozan asked with a smile after echoing his coach. "I'm just being honest. I tell my guys the same thing, we don't look at who we're playing. We understand each game matters more than the last one."
It's not just lip service, the Raptors have been practicing what they preach. Apart from a short-lived Bucks run that cut the home team's lead to eight at halftime, the Raptors never took their foot off the gas. Their 38-point first frame matched a season-high for scoring in a quarter and the game was quickly put away early in the third after Toronto adjusted to the Bucks' pesky zone defence.
"We can't rely on that every night," Casey said of the team's second-half run. "That resolve, it doesn't win too many games against good teams so we've got to make sure we take care of business, and we did."
"I think we came out with more effort in the second half and it seemed to work for us," said Kyle Lowry, who scored 11 of his team-high 23 points in the third quarter.
Again, Lowry was exceptional, shooting 6-of-8 from the field, 4-of-5 from three-point range and connecting on all seven of his free-throw attempts. The Raptors' point guard also recorded four steals and drew his league-leading 23rd charge of the season.
"Just another night at the office for Kyle," Casey said. [The] charges are huge. If you go in there he's going to come from nowhere to get a charge so he does a great job of that, reading that, sacrificing his body for it. He's done everything, defensively, offensively, he's set the tone."
The playmaking ability of DeRozan - who registered four or more assists in a career-best sixth straight game - and John Salmons, adding five dimes along with his 10 points off the bench, took pressure off the Raptors' point guard, freeing Lowry up on the weak side. As a team, the Raptors tallied 26 assists, shooting 51 per cent from the field and 12-of-23 from beyond the arch.
Although Casey doesn't want to hear about it, Toronto's next four opponents have losing records. The Raptors have won 10 of its last 11 games against sub-.500 teams and don't appear to be letting up.
"I'm going to say this again, we don't have any right, yet, to overlook anyone in this league," Casey repeated after his team improved to 19-17, two games above the .500 mark for the first time since March of 2010. "It's a tough league, we're still building, we're still getting there so I can't allow our guys to have that in their thought process."