TORONTO - It's not a trait that Dwane Casey is entirely proud of, certainly not one he's comfortable relying on, but his team has mastered the art of procrastination.
The Raptors had an early deadline Sunday, a dreaded afternoon game, and they left the bulk of their work until the last minute, as they've done so many times before.
Casey - like an angry parent, stringent teacher or meticulous boss - gave them the wake-up call they sorely needed.
Down by as many as 14 points and allowing the visiting Hawks to shoot 54 per cent in the first half, the Raptors coach stormed into the locker room and addressed his team at intermission.
"I sang them a lullaby," he joked. "I gave them some milk and cookies and said, 'let's go'."
You didn't have to be a fly on the wall to gauge the tone of Casey's halftime sermon.
"Oh, man, he came in here yelling," said DeMar DeRozan after Toronto's 96-86 comeback victory over Atlanta. "Once Casey yells, you either have to do your job or you're going to hear him yelling after the game. We understood."
Having dropped their first four Sunday afternoon games this season - allowing at least 112 points in each of them - the Raptors hit the snooze again on this day. Toronto shot 28 per cent in the opening quarter, scoring 16 points and committing seven turnovers.
"I told Tim Leiweke on the way in [the locker room], it was like pulling teeth," Casey said. "It was like going to the dentist office in that first half."
"We were playing terrible [in] that first half," echoed DeRozan. It took nearly 17 minutes of game-time before he registered his first field goal. It took nearly 20 minutes before Kyle Lowry made his first bucket.
"We knew what we had to do."
Trailing by nine points to begin the fourth quarter, the Raptors finally got to business. Led by its two best players, Toronto scored 36 points in the final 12 minutes - more than they tallied in the first and third combined - while holding the Hawks to 15.
On the season, Toronto has scored 209 points more than it's allowed in the fourth quarter, the best mark in the NBA, and it's not close. The two-time defending champion Miami Heat, second best, have outscored opponents by 141 in the final frame. Conference leaders San Antonio and Indiana are third and fourth best.
The Raptors have won 10 games in which they've trailed after three quarters this season, something they accomplished just three times a year ago.
"We're just resilient, to be honest, man," said DeRozan. He and Lowry combined for 23 points on 8-of-11 shooting in the fourth after scoring 23 on 9-of-24 in the first three quarters.
"We understand how important the game is coming out in the fourth quarter," continued, DeRozan, who finished with 21 points. "Everything matters. Our attention to detail on both ends definitely steps up. We understand we've got to pull out a win somehow, someway."
Lowry's minutes down in win
Less than five minutes into the game, Lowry was sent to the bench, replaced by Greivis Vasquez. It was an unprecedented early-game benching for the Raptors' point guard who has been logging heavy minutes, playing the bulk of, if not the duration of the first quarter.
He did not seem hurt, nor did it appear to be for disciplinary reasons. Later, less than six minutes into the third, he was replaced again.
Limiting Lowry's minutes was the plan going in, Casey explained after the game.
"He's had a lot of minutes," said the Raptors' coach. "I was talking to our medical people, and as an organization, we're going to try to keep his minutes down as much as possible. That's hard, believe me, as a coach and for him. He's such a competitor."
There's nothing specific that's ailing Lowry, Casey said and he confirmed. It's the wear and tear of a long season that has the team concerned about Lowry, who is averaging nearly 37 minutes per night, a career-most.
"I don't think [any] player in the NBA right now feels 100 per cent," said Lowry, after scoring 25 points Sunday. "It's that time of the year where everyone has nicks and nacks and bruises and all that stuff."
Lowry logged 27 minutes, his fewest since Feb. 3 in Utah, a game he left with a knee injury.
Amir goes down, and gets back up
Battling for a rebound late in the fourth, Amir Johnson collided with Hawks' guard Shelvin Mack and went down hard, holding his left knee.
You may not be surprised when Johnson hits the deck, although it's usually after tweaking one of his rickety ankles, but you shouldn't be surprised when he hops back up, which was the case again Sunday, waving off the trainers and remaining in the game.
"It wasn't a scare, it was just initial pain," said Johnson, who had six points to go along with eight boards against the Hawks. "Once I walked it off, I was fine."
His teammates have come to expect the occasional injury scare from him but that doesn't make it easier to cope with.
"To be honest, he's probably our heart and soul so when that happened, it kind of scared us a little bit," Lowry said.
"I've seen Amir get hit by a Mack Truck and get up," joked DeRozan. "I always hate to see him go down. One thing about Amir, Amir plays through any and everything. He kind of scared me tonight. When he grabbed his knee, I kind of cussed at him a little to make sure he was alright."
With Patrick Patterson out, still nursing an elbow injury, and Casey searching for bursts of energy in a lacklustre first half, the Raptors used 12 of their available players in Sunday's game.
Vasquez logged 28 minutes and led the bench in scoring for the fourth consecutive game with 12. No other Raptors reserve played more than Tyler Hansbrough's 12 minutes. Chuck Hayes played well, scoring four points and grabbing three rebounds in 11 minutes and Nando De Colo logged 10, hitting his first field goal in eight games with the Raptors.
Lowry extended his career-best streak of 19 or more points to nine games. He's averaging 22.6 over that stretch, scoring 20 or more in each of his last six contests.
"I'm only 24, I'll play the whole game," said DeRozan, on the possibility of having his minutes cut down, like Lowry's. "Kyle's old. He's damn near 30. I understand, you've got to do what you've got to do. I'm ready for whatever."