NEW YORK - Sometimes a little bit of confidence goes a long way.
Looking at the standings - where the Raptors sit atop the woeful Atlantic Division - wins in Dallas and Oklahoma City count just the same as less impressive victories over the 76ers and Jazz.
Internally, those triumphs have meant everything to this young, impressionable Raptors team. Whether they're facing a late-game deficit, protecting a lead, or staring down one of the league's elite teams, the Raptors believe they can win.
"It does give you confidence to know you went out and beat [some] of the best teams in the league on their home floor," Dwane Casey said before his team rallied back to defeat the division-rival Knicks, 95-83 at Madison Square Garden on Friday. "That should help us know that hey, you can do it."
Having played 36 minutes of lackluster, uninspired basketball against an undermanned club that was nearly as lethargic, the Raptors looked like a team that believed, that knew they could flip on the switch when it mattered most. Trailing by as many as 12 points in the third quarter, Toronto held the Knicks to 5-of-19 shooting in the fourth, outscoring the home team 29-12 in the final frame.
Once again, the Raptors showed supreme confidence in the face of adversity on the road. They found a way to win, a notable step for a franchise that has historically found creative ways to lose.
"You definitely feel good once you're winning games," said DeMar DeRozan, who led the Raptors with 25 points, including eight in the pivotal fourth quarter. "You gain all the confidence game-in and game-out, especially playing all these teams, knowing we could beat them."
"We understand we're never out of the game until that last second runs out of the clock. It definitely helps, because last year we were in a ton of late-game situations we couldn't pull out. We'd kind of fold, get frustrated, let a big shot frustrate us. Now we don't let any of that frustrate us."
The difference is noticeable. A year ago, the Raptors were 3-36 when trailing after three quarters. Two months into the season, they already have four comeback victories.
Most impressively, Toronto is the NBA's third-best fourth-quarter team in terms of point differential. Outscoring opponents by 59 points in the final period, the Raptors rank behind Indiana and Miami, the cream of the crop in the Eastern Conference.
“I think we've got some good closers," Kyle Lowry said after a 15-point, 11-assist performance, his 19th straight game with six or more dimes. "I think we've got guys who don't care about the moment, they just want to win games."
Confidence has been the most crucial factor in the continued development of franchise centrepiece Jonas Valanciunas, who had a coming out party on the NBA's biggest stage Friday.
Facing Tyson Chandler, one of the league's toughest match-ups at his position, the Raptors' sophomore registered a career-high 18 boards to go along with 16 points. Valanciunas was not fazed by the moment or his competition, he held his ground and played up to it as much or more than he has before.
"JV just be all over the place," DeRozan said with a chuckle. "Sometimes we've just got to tell him to calm down. He just wants it that bad. You've got to love having a guy like that on your team."
Lowry has been as tough on the 21-year-old as anyone in the organization. Routinely reprimanding him after missed assignments or botched pick-and-rolls, even Lowry sees and applauds the growth of the Raptors' prized second-year centre.
"It just makes me proud because I'm on him more than everybody but when he does well I congratulate him and I appreciate what he does," Lowry said of Valanciunas. "I just want to see him be the best player he can be."
"I'll buy him dinner one day," the veteran point guard joked.
For Valanciunas, it was a big night, whether he cares to admit it or not. The witty, albeit soft-spoken, seven footer refused to bite on questions regarding his individual performance after the game.
"I was just playing my game, I'm trying to help the team," he maintained. "That's all I do every game."
"I'm not trying to show swagger or something. I'm a simple guy and I'm just trying to play hard."
Like the sinking Atlantic Division itself, one of these teams was going to win this game and through three quarters, that seemed like a maddening thought. Both teams got off to a sluggish start, especially the Raptors, coming off a brief Christmas break earlier this week. Toronto shot 38 per cent from the field and committed 10 turnovers in the first half before tightening the screws in the third quarter and running away with the game in the fourth.
"We were playing in mud in the first half," Casey said. "Our effort was there it was just one of those games where we couldn't get going and I think it was a little bit because of the break, coming back, trying to get things going. We turned it on in the second half and it's good to be able to not play your best game and still come out with the win against a very powerful offensive team in New York."
The Knicks are a sinking ship, desperately trying to stay afloat in the division for as long as injuries remain a viable excuse for their failures. Carmelo Anthony, the NBA's second-leading scorer, missed Friday's game with an ankle injury and will not travel to Toronto for the back end of a home-and-home set with the Raptors Saturday.
In many ways, Friday's game was the epitome of what has become the league's most ridiculed division. More often than not it was painful to watch.
As the Knicks, last season's division champions, were booed off their home court it became clear; these are two teams headed in opposite directions. One with more confidence than they've had in some time, the other losing hope with each passing day.