WASHINGTON - Fresh off his first All-Star Game appearance, DeMar DeRozan - heading into uncharted waters as the Raptors ready for a rare playoff push - addressed his teammates following Tuesday morning shoot around.
"Each and every single game matters from here on out, especially if we want to do something special," he told them, as the third-seeded Raptors prepared to begin the unofficial second half of their season against the sixth place Washington Wizards.
"We can't take [any] nights off," he stressed. "These 30 games are going to be big and we've got to start tonight."
Message received, at least in the first of those final 30 games.
It took just over four minutes for all five Raptors' starters to get on the board. In the end, six players scored in double figures and the team's bench totaled 43 points on an impressive 18-for-26 shooting, as Toronto came away with a 103-93 win, its third in three games against the Wizards this season.
"That's what's great about our team, everybody understands their role and that's real big," said DeRozan, who had a quiet night by his recent standards, scoring 14 points. "We have anybody that can [step up], it can be anybody. If one guy's not playing well, somebody else always picks it up."
DeRozan's uplifting words were not a surprise to Dwane Casey. The Raptors' leading scorer had told his coach that he intended to make the speech on the flight to Washington the day prior.
"[I] sat with him and talked about the second half of the season, what to expect, and he said he was going to do that," Casey said. "We talked [Monday] night as a team, talked about the next 30 games, what to expect as a team. Now we've got to follow it up with action. Every team coming out is going to be gunning for him - he's achieved All-Star status - and us as a team, we're in the playoff hunt. So we've got to meet those expectations."
As a team, the Raptors were expectedly rusty early on, specifically on defence. Washington scored 27 first-quarter points, shooting 57 per cent in the frame, while Wizards All-Star John Wall had 11, matching his game total from the Raptors' last visit to Verizon Center, Toronto's 101-88 win to begin the month of January.
"It's always tough to find a rhythm when you're coming off the All-Star break," said Kyle Lowry, who vacationed in an undisclosed location this past weekend after being passed up for the All-Star Game. "It's always tough but we figured it out in the second half and third quarter, for me especially to get going a little bit."
In a matchup between two of the best point guards in the Eastern Conference - arguably the two best - Lowry connected on just two of his eight first-half attempts, scoring six points as Wall exploded for 19, making nine of 12 shots.
The Raptors' lead guard came out of intermission looking like a man on a mission, scoring 14 points on 6-of-8 shooting in the third, draining long jumpers, getting into the paint at will and knocking down a series of tricky step backs.
Lowry finished with a double-double, leading his team with 24 points and 10 assists and Wall was held to three points, without a single field goal, in the second half.
"I was trying to attack a little bit more," Lowry, the scorned should-be-All-Star, said of his third-quarter clinic. "That first game out of the break is always tough and I didn't want to let that be an excuse for us to lose this game."
"He took the game over in the third quarter and willed us to a win," Casey said of his point guard. "Just his aggressiveness. He attacked their feet, didn't settle for the three, got into the paint and kept attacking."
The Raptors recorded 25 assists, 17 from their point guards - Lowry and Greivis Vasquez - and shot 57 per cent on the night, holding Washington, one of the better three-point shooting teams, to 4-of-15 from beyond the arch.
Although it looked like it was going to be smooth sailing for Toronto in the third quarter, leading by as much as 20, things got interesting down the stretch when Washington turned up its defensive intensity and the Raptors quickly went ice cold.
Toronto was held without a field goal in the final 7:35 of the game, as the Wizards cut their deficit to six down but were unable to get any closer.
"We just turned the ball over way too many times against their pressure," Casey said after this team committed eight of their 15 miscues in the final frame. "That's just from rust and time off, timing, speed of the game."
The rest seemed to do wonders for the Raptors, winners of their last three games, specifically Amir Johnson, who has had over 10 days off after missing two contests with a sore right ankle. The Raptors' forward made his return off the bench, scoring 14 points and grabbing five rebounds in a spirited 25 minutes of action.
Patrick Patterson made his third straight start - scoring 10 points in 34 minutes - and should stick with the first unit for the time being as Johnson works his way back to full health, though Casey wouldn't commit to the lineup change.
The Raptors will go for the four-game sweep of Washington when the Wizards visit Toronto next week. They are now four games ahead of the Wizards and a game and a half in front of the fourth-place Chicago Bulls, Toronto's Wednesday opponent at the Air Canada Centre.
"That's a tough team," Lowry said of the Bulls, who will be well rested having arrived in Toronto Tuesday, getting the night off. "A different type of game tomorrow night. They're very defensive-minded. They've got a great coach [in Tom Thibodeau] and a very intense team, with Joakim (Noah) their All-Star. He leads the charge so we've got to match his intensity."