BOSTON - An anonymous Raptors player stepped into the elevator descending from the third floor following a Saturday afternoon practice at Air Canada Centre and with the mental and physical grind of a long season beginning to weigh on him he let out a long sigh.
"I just want the playoffs to start," he said in a moment of refreshing truthfulness.
He's not alone. He can't be.
They can see the light at the end of the tunnel, a tunnel that has led to darkness so many times before for the bulk of this Toronto roster.
On Wednesday they moved one step closer.
"That was a character test for us," Dwane Casey said after his team's bounce-back 99-90 win in Boston. "I think this team has a lot of character. I get upset with them but they're mine, just like you're kids. They compete hard and they make mistakes but it's not from a lack of fight or togetherness."
It was their first victory in Beantown since 2008, the last season in which they qualified for the playoffs. Now, they're on the cusp of returning to the postseason, and they're in the driver's seat.
The Raptors are just one win, or Knicks loss, away from clinching their first postseason berth in six years and can do so as early as Wednesday evening if the Kings defeat New York in Sacramento, a game Kyle Lowry says he won't watch but admits he'll have to keep an eye on.
"I said that before the game, I said look, 'we can take care of our business tonight'," Lowry told the assembled media after the win. "We can't count on anyone else but we can take care of our part. I ain't going to lie; I think tonight everybody's rooting for that Western Conference team over there."
Going into the game, the Raptors were in danger of dropping their second straight and five of their last seven, following Tuesday's botched comeback attempt in Cleveland. Even after getting off to a better start - scoring 31 points in the opening 12 minutes after totaling 33 in their last two first quarters - they looked like a team going through the motions at points in the middle of the game, exchanging the lead with a lackluster Celtics club.
Then the sense of urgency kicked in. Lowry scored nine of his 23 points in the fourth quarter and the Raptors closed out a win they needed to have.
"[Casey] challenged us," Lowry said. "He challenged us big time and I think we responded tonight."
With a little help from the Bobcats, who defeated the surging Nets in overtime, the Raptors have a two-game cushion sitting stop the Atlantic Division, also moving into a virtual tie with the Bulls for the East's third seed.
Although they're anxious, there's still work to be done and each game, regardless of opponent, is increasingly meaningful with playoff seeding at stake and things to shore up over the season's final three weeks.
"We can't afford to look ahead," Casey cautioned. "We've got to take care of business. We've got to continue to get better and improve and shape up some areas that we have that's leaking a little bit."
Only five of the Raptors' 15 players have appeared in a postseason game over the last three years. Only three on the roster have logged time in more than 20 playoff contests. The team's starters have a combined 24 games of playoff experience, all from Lowry and Amir Johnson, who haven't been to the dance in five years.
"It's tough just because guys haven't been there before," Casey told TSN.ca. "Playoff runs are tough. There's a mental toughness, a physical toughness you have to have. Fight through injuries, little nicks and bangs that we have. You can't feel sorry for yourself because it's a marathon. You've got to be able to do that. This is the first time for some of our guys so it's a new frontier for them."
Many of them are heading into unchartered waters. It's only natural to fixate on the final destination but they've come too far to lose focus now.
"I think it's kind of human nature," said Landry Fields, who started eight playoff games for the Knicks in his first two NBA season. "We see the playoffs and there's a pretty high probability that we'll get in but at the end of the day you can't really focus on that. These last few games are important, not just for us growing and building and getting momentum for the playoffs but also seeding. Seeding is huge in the playoffs and I think as long as we keep that as a focal point rather than thinking these games are just filler games until we get into the playoffs than they'll become more meaningful for us."
"We're going to finish it off strong," echoed DeMar DeRozan, who scored 20 on Wednesday and will be making his playoff debut next month. "We've worked too hard to just to get complacent with where we're at. We've still got a long ways to go and everybody in this locker room loves the game too much to sit back and say, we're going to wait until the playoffs."
Big night for the sophomores
Both Terrence Ross and Jonas Valanciunas stepped up in Wednesday's win. Ross led Toronto with 24 points, hitting five of his nine attempts from three-point range, while Valanciunas registered his team-leading 20th double-double of the season with 15 points and 14 rebounds.
"I thought Jonas had one of his better nights, not only scoring but he rebounded," Casey said. "[Ross] kept us afloat. He knocked down some shots. We needed it."
Struggling second unit
The Raptors' second unit - still without injured forward Patrick Patterson - mustered only seven points, all from Greivis Vasquez, who made just three of his 10 shots. Meanwhile, the Celtics' bench scored 51, led by Jared Sullinger's 26, 19 of which came in the fourth.
"Again, point production from our bench has been an issue," Casey said. "That's something we have to rectify. That's just putting too many minutes on our starters."
Toronto bench has now been outscored by a total of 129 points in 11 games without Patterson, who was cleared for contact earlier this week. Although there's no timetable for the return of Patterson - out with an elbow injury - the team hopes to have him back later this week.
The Raptors snapped an 11-game losing streak in Boston, the fourth time they've snapped a skid of eight road losses or more against an opponent this season.
Earlier this year, Toronto ended a 10-game slide to the Lakers in Los Angeles, also snapping a nine-game skid against the Nuggets in Denver and an eight-game losing streak versus the Bucks in Milwaukee.
"We can't worry about those other teams," Lowry said. "We control our own destiny. When you start worrying about other teams is when you lose focus and I think tonight we did a good job of focusing in on our team and not worrying about nothing else."