TORONTO - If you had been up early to watch the Canadian men's hockey team win gold Sunday morning, the Raptors' first-half lullaby likely put you back to sleep.
"I think we set basketball back probably 15 years in the first half," Dwane Casey admitted, speaking of his team's lackadaisical effort at the outset of a 105-90 win over the lowly Orlando Magic.
Slow starts have become a troublesome trend for the Raptors, who scored 44 points on 42 per cent shooting in the opening 24 minutes Sunday, but they've also developed a fondness for the second-half explosion, which seems to bail them out more often than not.
Whatever Casey is saying or doing in the locker room at intermission, it's been working. Once considered to be one of the worst third-quarter teams in the association, the Raptors looked like an inspired team coming out of the halftime break.
"Like I told our guys, we're going to have a lot of games where we're going to have to grind it out," Casey said. "For whatever reason we struggle in the first half [and] come through, turn it on [in the second half], but I think that's also a little bit of growth on our part. I've seen times when it had been a struggle for close to 40 minutes."
The Raptors have indeed turned a corner in that regard, establishing themselves as a lethal second-half club. Toronto has outscored, or tied, its opponent in the second half in 13 straight contests, holding teams to 39 per cent shooting and besting them by 91 total points during that stretch.
Since the season-altering trade of Rudy Gay, the Raptors lead the NBA in second-half point differential, outscoring foes by 216 points, 47 more than the second-ranked Indiana Pacers.
Led by its dynamic backcourt, Toronto missed just two of its 14 field goal attempts in the third, besting the Magic 36-24 and turning a three-point halftime lead into a 15-point advantage going into the fourth.
Neither guard, Kyle Lowry or DeMar DeRozan, missed a shot in the frame. The two combined for 26 of Toronto's 36 points.
Lowry, who shot just 1-of-7 in the first half, was in the zone. As the clock ticked down to end the period, the Raptors' point guard pulled up from 25-feet and drained his fourth three-pointer, putting the finishing touch on a perfect (5-for-5 from the field, 4-for-4 from three, 3-for-3 from the line) 17-point quarter.
Although the Raptors have outscored the Magic and Cavaliers 73-45, shooting 76 per cent from the floor in their last two third quarters - en route to a pair of home victories - Lowry and his teammates are wisely concerned about their customary slow starts.
"We're not that good of a team to just ease our way into the game," said Lowry, who finished with 28 points on Sunday. "We've got to come out and play with [that] intensity from the start."
What's behind the team's late wake-up calls?
"I can't really put a finger on it," DeRozan said after scoring 17 of his 24 in the second half. "Maybe we just like a challenge sometimes. [We] put ourselves in a tough situation so we can fight ourselves out, but we've got to stop that and understand we've got to come out of the gate so we don't make the game that hard on us."
Fortunately, the Raptors were playing host to the league's worst road team. The Magic, riding a 15-game losing streak away from home, were missing leading scorer Arron Afflalo, absent as a result of an ankle injury. They scored just 14 points in the opening quarter and didn't put up much resistance when the Raptors' guards seized control of the game. Toronto managed to seal a double-digit victory despite committing a season-high 24 turnovers, 18 of them coming from Lowry, DeRozan and Jonas Valanciunas.
While six of Toronto's next seven games come against losing teams, this is not a habit that will be kind to the playoff-bound Raptors as they approach the stretch run.
"We can't rely on that," DeRozan said of his team's second-half success, "because when we run into the top teams it's going to be tough to try to make a comeback against those teams."
"So we've got to start a habit of that now," he continued, "even when we're playing teams like Orlando so we'll be ready and we know what to expect when we play the good teams."