DETROIT - Locked in an unexpectedly tight battle with the lowly Pistons, having coughed up an early 18-point lead, the Raptors went up by one with just over seven minutes remaining as conflicting chants broke out in the stands.
"Let's go Pistons," cried the home crowd while a boisterous group of Toronto supporters chimed in with their own anthem of equal or greater volume.
"Let's go Raptors," shouted a four-row contingent of fans, dressed in red, white and black, rooting for the Atlantic Division champions right behind the visiting team's bench.
"Oh, man, I think we had more fans than them tonight," said DeMar DeRozan, who had scored all 12 of his team's fourth-quarter points at that time. "It was definitely cool to see that."
With the clock winding down, the Raptors now up 10 and on their way to a monumental, albeit shaky victory, that section erupted in anticipation. They were not alone. Four fans stood on the opposite end of the court, proudly wearing their Raptors' jerseys as they held up four sheets of paper spelling out "R-A-P-S". The Palace of Auburn Hills was filled with Raptors' faithful who made the four-hour (or so) drive from Toronto, crossing the border to Michigan, where they were able to witness team history.
"I didn't know where I was for a while," Casey said of the unexpected support after his team's 116-107 victory, Toronto's 47th of the season, matching a franchise record. "When you win, people come out of the woodwork and they want to jump on the wagon and it was great that they came out with that enthusiasm. I thought it helped our guys."
Nearing the end of their magical, out-of-nowhere campaign, the Raptors continue to enjoy the fruits of their labour. Two days after clinching their second ever division title, they tied the team's all-time win mark - previously set in 2000-01 and then again in 2006-07 - and have a chance to top it on Monday when they host the Bucks or in Wednesday's finale against New York.
"We talked about it as a team," Casey said. "It wasn't our goal going into the year but it's good for this group. It's something they should be proud of. They worked at it and it's all their doing."
"Why not break it?"
"It definitely means a lot, man," said DeRozan, who scored 14 of his game-high 30 points in the final quarter Sunday. "When you look at it, if you really sit down and look at it, man, that's big. To be tied with the franchise record and have a chance to break it. We came a long way. A lot of people wouldn't have counted [on] us to be in this position that we're in now. So it's definitely a credit to our hard work, players and coaching staff."
DeRozan cited the team's surprisingly successful Western Conference road trip in late January - with wins over Dallas and Oklahoma City - as a turning point in the season. That's when he knew they could go on to do something special. "Once we saw that happen, we understood we could play with anybody," the all-star guard said.
Their 47th win was not the most memorable, certainly not the easiest on the eyes but there was DeRozan, coming up big when his team needed him, once again.
"He really carried us down the stretch," Casey said of DeRozan, who was masterful in the fourth, especially after Kyle Lowry fouled out on a pair of highly questionable calls midway through the quarter. "He's been doing it all year, it's why he's an all-star. He did a great job of managing the game, picking his spots, being aggressive. Losing Kyle hurt us a little bit but I thought that's when DeMar really took over."
With just over six minutes remaining, Lowry was called for his fifth foul as he stood in, hoping to take a charge on the Pistons' Peyton Siva as he barrelled into the lane. Twenty seconds later, the Raptors point guard picked up his sixth and final foul, although replays showed that he made little-to-no contact with Andre Drummond, who tripped over his own feet and went to the ground.
After scoring 28 points in 33 minutes, Lowry was done for the afternoon. He had been brilliant and was as animated as you might expect as his teammates walked him to the bench, seeming to say, "we got this."
"Everybody was frustrated with the calls when Kyle fouled out," DeRozan admitted. "We understood that we weren't going to win by complaining or forcing to get calls. We had to go out there and take it and that's what we did."
The Raptors had led by as many as 18 in the first half, 17 early in the third, before the Pistons went on to drop 37 points in quarter, making for another subdued post-game celebration.
You wouldn't know if from their record - they've won eight of 10 - but Casey's team has been moonwalking its way into the postseason, beginning next weekend. As we know, Toronto's once stifling defence has slipped. For the 12th time in the last 20 contests they surrendered 100 (or more) points on Sunday, but the Raptors' coach lamented over a more specific concern; toughness, or a lack thereof, magnified in their win over Detroit.
"The thing that bothers me most is the rebounding, them kicking our butt in the paint, the physicality and [them] taking advantage of us that way," said Casey after the Pistons grabbed 21 offensive boards, most by any Raptors' opponent this season. "That's all we've been talking about and it's something we have to correct or it'll be a short stint in the playoffs."
Practice time has been and will continue to be scarce in April, so Casey and his coaching staff are forced to utilize their final games to make necessary tweaks and adjustments going into the playoffs.
"You have to," Casey said. "That's what's tough this time of year, is finding that time where you can work on things and tweak things. That's why these games are important to us."
Thanks in large part to the Pistons' generous defence and early foul trouble, Toronto got off to a quick start, scoring 42 points in the first frame, most of any quarter this season.
The Raptors scored 16 points off Detroit's eight turnovers, connecting on 14 of their 19 field goal attempts and 11 of 13 free throws, while holding the Pistons to 36 per cent shooting.
Both Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe were relegated to the bench after picking up a couple fouls apiece. Without their star frontcourt, the Pistons had no answer for the brute strength of Jonas Valanciunas, who scored 10 in the opening period while Tony Mitchell picked up four fouls in six minutes trying to hold him off.
Centre of attention
Sunday's matchup of emerging sophomore centres lived up to its billing. For the 10th consecutive game, Valanciunas scored in double figures, finishing with 18 points to go along with eight rebounds. On the other end, Drummond recorded his 56th double-double of the season - second to only Kevin Love for the NBA lead - with 14 points and 17 boards.
Lift from the bench
With Lowry exiting in the fourth, Greivis Vasquez was subbed in and immediately picked up where the starting point guard left off, scoring six of his 14 points in the final six minutes of the game.
"I was concerned, not about his offence but more about defence because Kyle was doing a decent job on their guards," Casey said of Vasquez, who has led the Raptors' bench in scoring in 10 of his last 14 games as a reserve. "Greivis came in and ran the offence, got us into sets."
Earlier in the game it was another guard, Nando De Colo, that made an impact coming in off the bench. After a dreary start to the second quarter, De Colo sparked Toronto in nine quality minutes.
"He picked us up," Casey stated, crediting De Colo. "He moved the ball, he attacked, he did a great job of increasing the tempo [and] gave Amir one of the best passes we've had all year running the floor. His court vision is uncanny and that's why I don't hesitate to get him in there to change the game."
In three meetings, the Raptors outscored Detroit by 28 (84-56) in the fourth quarter, sweeping the season series with the Pistons.
"It's timing, it's grit, it's anticipation and a lot of those things we didn't have," Casey said of the rebounding discrepancy. The Raptors were bested 55-40 on the glass. "They basically manhandled us in the paint and we've got to better than that."