TORONTO - For months we've been hearing all about their impossibly difficult early-season schedule.
Through 34 contests, the Raptors have had the most difficult slate of games in the Eastern Conference, according to Basketball-Reference.com.
They've played 19 on the road and 16 against winning teams, both tied for most in the East. They have seen both conference finalists, Miami and Indiana three times. In spite of it all, Toronto is right where Dwane Casey had cautiously hoped they would be; at sea level.
"These five games are a crucial stretch of games here at home for us," Casey said ahead of Wednesday's 112-91 victory over the Pistons, a win that got Toronto back to the .500 mark. "It's a very crucial time."
Following another daunting road trip, capped off by disappointing but expected losses to the Heat and Pacers, the Raptors schedule finally begins to ease up. Wednesday's meeting with Detroit was the first of four straight against losing teams. Four of their next five are at home and only two of the remaining 12 contests in January come against opponents that went into Wednesday's games with winning records.
Casey had spoken about using recent tests against the league's best as a measuring stick for his emerging team but these upcoming few weeks may tell him more about where they stack up in the Eastern Conference. They must continue to win the games they should.
Taking care of the Pistons, one of the East's talented disasters, was a promising first step.
Toronto coughed up an 11-point second-quarter lead in what turned out to be an ugly opening half for both teams. DeMar DeRozan and Amir Johnson combined to shoot 0-of-16 while the team was outscored by 16 points in the paint, outworked by another physical frontline. Lucky to be down only four at the break, the Raptors adjusted going into the second half, where they outscored the visitor's 62-37.
"We pretty much said, this is a must-win game," Johnson maintained. "We have to go out and take it and we did that."
Although they shot just 41 per cent from the field, the Raptors knocked down 11 three-pointers, including five from Terrence Ross, who had 17 points on the night. Toronto improved to 8-2 on the season when connecting on 10 or more three-balls. Kyle Lowry led the team in scoring with 21 to go along with nine assists, Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas both added double-doubles and DeRozan finished with 19 points, 13 of which came from the free throw line.
"We knew it was going to be a grind it out game and that's something we're learning to do," Casey added.
"There's no pretty games in the NBA, it's a man's league," he continued. "To win in this league, to win in the Eastern Conference especially - I found out in my three years in it - it's a man's [conference]. It's a hit, knockdown, drag out [conference] and the strong survive. We're learning how to do that."
The Raptors were a different team coming out of the locker room after intermission. They bested the Pistons in the paint - Detroit leads the league in that category - out-rebounded them and imposed their will on a struggling team that has now lost six in a row. After eight lead changes in the first half, there was just one in the second and it was all the Raptors needed to seize control.
"They're must-win games," Johnson said. "They're all home and we need to win those games just to stay at the top of our division. They're must-win games and we've got to come out and play hard."
With Brooklyn on deck, followed by games against the woeful Bucks and Celtics, the Raptors have to continue to do just that. They've got to seize this opportunity. Although Toronto is just 1-5 facing the Pacers and Heat this season, they're 11-5 against the rest of the conference.
Sitting just one game out of third place in the East - after the Horford-less Hawks upset Indiana on Wednesday - the Raptors are now in a position to validate their recent success. They can separate themselves from the heap of mediocrity they'll be facing throughout the duration of the month of they will end up blending in with them.
"There's no reason for any of us to be content or satisfied or be able to be happy about [where we are]," Casey preached. "We've got to play like a hungry team. We've got to continue to grow, we've got to continue to have the underdog attitude because that's where we are. "
"We're nowhere near an established program. I'm not kidding myself, I know what an established program is all about and we're not there yet. We have a lot of growth to do with our core group of guys."