TORONTO - It's been a while since the Raptors could genuinely speak about a meaningful game in February but Dwane Casey is not just blowing smoke when he stresses the importance of Wednesday's showdown with Atlanta, his team's final game before All-Star weekend.
"It's huge," Casey said of Toronto's matchup with the fifth-place Hawks, who sit 1.5 games behind the Raptors for third place in the Eastern Conference. "It's not like in the past where games don't matter. In the past we were building, getting guys experience. Now the games matter."
Toronto will go into the break with at least 27 wins for the first time since the 2009-10 campaign and could pad its cushion over Atlanta in the standings with a victory on Wednesday.
TSN 1050's Josh Lewenberg and Duane Watson took a look at the importance of Wednesday's tilt at home to Atlanta and finishing the first half of the season strong in this week's edition of the Raptors Report podcast.
Generally, this is one of those games - the one just before All-Star - that coaches fear most, and for good reason. It's just one of 82 and it's easy to look past if you're headed to New Orleans for this weekend's festivities or eagerly awaiting time off with family and friends. NBA players are only human after all.
Perhaps that would be the case against an inferior opponent, a trap game of sorts, but this year's unofficial finale to the first half of the season has a different feel and the mentality going into it reflects a new level of focus.
"(We have to) make sure we take care of business before we go on the break," Casey said following a light practice on Tuesday. "(We've) been talking about that now for the last week or so and we didn't do a good job on the West Coast trip of closing out. We've got one more game before the break and we don't want to take the break before it starts."
His troops seem to have bought in.
"Before anything else we've got to care of business (Wednesday) against a team we're going back and forth with at our spot in the Eastern Conference," said DeMar DeRozan, Toronto's representative in Sunday's All-Star Game. "We've got to take advantage of (Wednesday's) game on our home floor and go into the break feeling good."
Despite dropping three of five games on the road last week, the Raptors have an opportunity to go into the five-day layoff with some momentum, coming off a 108-101 win over the Pelicans at home Monday. Meanwhile, the Hawks are backing into the break having lost four straight, most recently falling 100-85 to the Bulls, who leapfrogged them for fourth place with the win.
Atlanta has failed to break 90 points in three of its last three games, scoring 86.5 over that stretch after averaging 116.5 in the previous four contests, winning three.
"They're definitely a team of runs, that can get real streaky on you fast," said DeRozan, who scored 31 points in Toronto's 102-95 road loss to the Hawks on Nov. 1, the second game of the season. "So we've got to take all that out the game from the start and not give them (any) hope and take care of business from the get go."
Hawks' centre Al Horford had 22 points and 16 rebounds in the first meeting but has since been lost for the season after undergoing surgery on a torn pectoral muscle. Paul Millsap - who will join DeRozan as a first-time all-star in the East this weekend - has stepped up in Horford's place, averaging a career-best 17.7 points to go along with 8.4 rebounds, already knocking down more threes this season (46) than he had in his previous seven combined.
"He's another example of a guy who has developed his game (and) brought something back to the table every year," Casey said of the Hawks' forward. "He's made some threes in his career in Utah but now he's a consistent three-point shooter. He's self-made and that's what you respect about Millsap."
Certainly you cannot talk about the Hawks and their three-point shooting without mentioning one of the most impressive, albeit under the radar streaks in professional sports right now. With two treys in Tuesday's loss, Kyle Korver extended his historic run of consecutive games with at least one made three-pointer to 119. He broke Dana Barros' old record of 89 straight games back in December and is shooting the three-ball at a 46 per cent clip on the season, third best in the NBA. His accomplishment - and the threat it represents - has not gone unnoticed in the Raptors' locker room.
"It's crazy to do something like that," DeRozan said. "Especially when they know you're a three-point shooter and you scout a guy like that and your whole objective is to run him off the three-point line, make him shoot twos. He's still knocking down threes, it's definitely tough."
"He's a good athlete, it's not like he's just a stand still guy," Casey added of Korver. "So we're going to have to have a lot of energy to chase him around, to run with him, to move with him and we can't relax because if you lose site of him for a split second it's a three-point shot."
Three days before defending his Slam Dunk title at All-Star Saturday Night, Terrence Ross should draw the assignment of chasing down Korver, at least initially. As for Millsap, he should see more of a committee at the four-spot, especially if Amir Johnson can't go for the Raptors.
Johnson has been nursing an injury to his right ankle since coming down on it in last month's win over Orlando. Casey and the coaching staff opted to rest the Raptors' ailing warrior in Monday's win - the first game he's missed due to injury in nearly two years - but haven't determined his status for Wednesday's contest.
Previously it would have made perfect sense to sit him again, extending his rest into and through the break but now, with higher stakes, the decision becomes more difficult.
"He's still sore but we're going to see," Casey said. "Right now we need all hands on deck."