TORONTO - For the streaking Raptors, the element of surprise is rapidly dissipating with each passing victory.
The word is out: they're not to be taken lightly.
Now, it's not just that they're winning, but it's how they're winning and who they're beating that has put Toronto back on the NBA radar.
"You win in Dallas and win at Oklahoma City in particular, those are like springboard games," said Frank Vogel, coach of the league-best Indiana Pacers, moments before his team dropped a 95-82 stunner in Toronto Wednesday evening. "There's a residual effect that carries with you over the next period of games, next stretch of games."
"You just play with more confidence, more togetherness," he continued. "And that's what they're going through right now."
Add the Pacers to that list of monumental, confidence-boosting casualties.
It had all the makings of a long night at the office for the Raptors in the second game of a back-to-back, fresh off a hard-fought comeback win in Chicago. Regardless of the outcome, Dwane Casey had planned to use Wednesday's contest as a litmus test to measure his improving club against an elite defensive opponent. "We'll find out how far we need to go or if we're there already," Casey said before the game.
"Last year or even two months ago [in this situation] I don't know what we would have done but we're meeting the challenge," the Raptors coach added after the win, the Raptors' fourth straight and ninth in 12 contests.
Again, Toronto proved to be adaptable facing a top-five defence for the second straight night, grinding out another low-scoring affair by making timely plays on both ends of the floor.
"We're going to go out there and battle with the best of 'em, night in and night out," exclaimed DeMar DeRozan
, who scored 10 of his game-high 26 points in the fourth quarter. "We don't care who you throw out there in front of us, we understand they're going to throw a punch and we're going to throw punches back."
Toronto outscored the visiting Pacers 55-38 in the second half, 29-19 in the fourth quarter and totaled 27 assists on 32-made field goals on the evening.
"The toughness of our team is just building every single night," Kyle Lowry
boasted after recording a season-high 14 assists, the most he's registered as a Raptor, to go along with 13 points. "We're just all out there playing. Just trying to find out how we can win games."
"Indiana is one of the top teams in the league but our guys battled," Casey echoed. "We came in hungry and fought for 48 minutes, stayed with the game plan and executed."
For the first time since 2010 Toronto is a .500 team 30 games into the season. It's also the best record the team has had under Casey, this late into the campaign.
"Personally, I don't give a crap," said Casey, asked what his team's recent success means to him, a coach with an expiring deal. "I mean, it's not about me. It's about that team in there in that locker room. I'm going to be in coaching for a long time. so it's not about me, it's about those guys in the locker room. For them, I think it's another huge step as far as their growth is concerned and I truly mean that."
"But Consistency in this league is huge. Swagger is great when you have it, but it's a fleeting thing when you don't hold onto it."