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Lewenberg: Raptors set franchise mark on the road

Josh Lewenberg
4/6/2014 2:31:48 AM
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MILWAUKEE - On a Saturday evening in early November the Raptors picked up their first road win of the season, defeating the Bucks in Milwaukee for the first time since 2008, the last year in which they qualified for the playoffs.

It's been a long and unpredictable campaign that has ultimately led them back to Wisconsin, where five months later they would make history on the same court where it all began.

With their 102-98 victory at Bradley Center on Saturday, the Raptors picked up their 21st road win of the season, a franchise record, also assuring they'll finish the year with a winning record away from home for the first time in team history.

The Raptors have exceeded every expectation since that first game in Milwaukee but the most surprising notch on their belt may just be the success they've enjoyed on the road, an unlikely strength for a young and inexperienced team.

"Even the veteran teams I had in Dallas and Seattle, it was tough to win on the road," Dwane Casey said. "Our focus has been good on the road for whatever reason. We keep the same routine, we try to make sure our travel is efficient, which is sometimes hard to do, so guys can get rest."

Some of their finest moments have come away from the Air Canada Centre. Their second road triumph came in Memphis, Rudy Gay's return to his old stomping grounds, a game Toronto won by 16.

Just over a month later, Gay now in Sacramento, they overcame a 19-point deficit to defeat Dallas in overtime only to knock off the Thunder in Oklahoma City two days later, a character-building trip for the emerging Raptors. They've won a couple contests in Chicago and stolen one in Brooklyn, thanks to a clutch steal and late-game jumper from Patrick Patterson.

Even with those victories in mind, the one that sticks out above the rest came against a Lakers team - now sitting near the bottom of the Western Conference - in Los Angeles on a Sunday evening in December. Mired in a five-game losing streak and undermanned after a franchise-altering trade, the Raptors spoiled Kobe Bryant's long anticipated return to the court.

That was the night they adopted the 'us against the world' mentality that has stuck with them. With the cards stacked against them, they came together in a special way and just a few days later they would add four veteran pieces to a puzzle that was suddenly falling into place.

"We keep everything together," said Greivis Vasquez, shortly after matching a season-high with 26 points and setting a new career mark with six three-pointers on Saturday. "Great chemistry, healthy locker room, great work ethic, we're so connected to each other. This is a unique team."

For all those impressive road victories on the resume, their 21st was rather forgettable.

As Casey stood in front of the media, fuming after a narrow victory over the league's worst team, the season flashed before all of our eyes. Look how far they've come. They had just won their third straight, sixth in seven games, and their head coach could not get past their horrid first half.

"The first half, we played like crap," he said. Harsh but true.

"There's no nice word you can put to it. We talked about it at halftime and after the game, we can't approach the game that way, it's not acceptable for where we want to go and what we want to do. If we want to be average, fine, but to get where we want to go, to be a playoff calibre team, we've got to perform better than that. Doesn't matter if it's Indiana or a high school team, it doesn't matter."

He wasn't just blowing smoke. The first half was bad, real bad. Following a couple of inspired home wins over quality teams in Houston and Indiana, the 14-win Bucks shot 59 per cent in the opening 24 minutes, outscoring Toronto 38-14 in the paint and led by nine at intermission.

"Our approach was not good, terrible," admitted Vasquez. "We're better than that and we understand that. We talked about it at halftime. Coach jumped on us and we reacted pretty well. In the second half we came to play. That's the real Toronto Raptors."

Toronto opened the second half on a 17-4 run to regain the lead minutes into the third quarter. They flipped the switch, something good teams do, and yes, the Raptors have become a good team. DeMar DeRozan scored 15 of his 23 points in the fourth quarter, where he attempted eight free throws after failing to get to the line in the first half.

Expectations have changed. The good news is no one is shying away from them.

"We cannot have excuses," Vasquez said. "A team that's going to the playoffs, playing to win a division cannot have excuses. If you talk to Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, they will tell you how it is. We're trying to get there. It's going to take us a little time. But we got the win. Ugly, pretty, it was a win and we need to learn from this game. We've got to understand that we've got to approach games differently. These five games we got left, we've got to run the table."

Lowry, Johnson sit out

Kyle Lowry missed his third straight game with a bruised left kneecap, while Amir Johnson sat out nursing a sore right ankle. Although both starters were with the team in Milwaukee - Johnson even took jump shots on the court ahead of the game - Casey opted to rest his ailing players with three days off before their next contest, at home to Philadelphia on Wednesday.

"We need them we want them but we'd rather not risk their health, more than anything else," the Raptors' coach said.

Although they're making progress, Casey thought it best to sit them as a precaution, avoiding further injury, on Saturday. They're both considered day-to-day and will likely be questionable for Wednesday's game.

The stat

After a stellar performance against Roy Hibbert and the Pacers on Friday, Jonas Valanciunas scored 17 points and grabbed 13 rebounds, recording his team-leading 22nd double-double of the season against the Bucks

The quote

"I've been in locker rooms, man, I know how it is," said Vasquez, speaking on the team's chemistry. "Egos, money, it's none of that here. None of that nonsense. We're just playing great basketball and we're happy for each other. This is a real team."

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