TORONTO - The Raptors have won seven of eight games, with just four remaining on the docket before the playoffs begin, but their head coach has been reluctant to celebrate his team's bittersweet late-season success.
Thanks in large part to a soft schedule and their improved efficiency on offence, they are finding ways to pull out games that they have probably deserved to lose. In that way, progress has been made, as Raptor teams of the past would universally find creative and increasingly frustrating ways to squander winnable games.
The red flag is routed in their recent slippage on defence, Dwane Casey's bread and butter. With the postseason around the corner, Casey knows that mental and physical toughness is about to become more important than ever. He can't help but be concerned with what he's seen.
"If we haven't taught defence by now we shouldn't be coaching," he said following a Thursday afternoon practice session. "It's a mindset right now, it's a focus. It's this time of year throughout the league, it's an epidemic."
Over the last two games, Toronto has allowed Milwaukee and Philadelphia - the NBA's two worst clubs - to score 212 points combined, shooting exactly 50 per cent from the field, with each team exceeding 60 points in the painted area.
On the season, the Raptors are surrendering 102.0 points per 100 possessions, the eighth-best mark in the association. Since Mar. 25 - a span in which they've played nine games, six against sub-.500 competition - that number has ballooned to 107.2, ranking 17th, below league average.
Offensively, they've picked up the slack. Over that same stretch of nine games, the Raptors have scored 4.1 points more per 100 possessions than their regular season mark. Simply put, their shots are falling. They've connected on 44 per cent of their three-point attempts in the last four contests.
That said, they've made it this far with their commitment to defence. That's what Casey knows, that's what he preaches and for whatever reason, his team has struggled to regain their identity at the most inconvenient time of the year.
"We've just got to get back on track," DeMar DeRozan said, following Toronto's 125-114 win over the lowly 76ers on Wednesday. "We've got to get out of whatever we're not doing on the defensive end before the playoffs start. Just clean that up and use the next four games for that. Understand what we're not doing and get back to the basics of what got us to this point."
"We saw it on film, we showed the film, we talked about it, went through it this morning," Casey added the next day. "It's something that's going to have to be internal. Guys have to decide individually, 'I'mma guard my yard and I'm not going to let a guy blow by me'."
For the most part that's been the most glaring issue, containing speed and quickness on the perimeter, something the Raptors have been burned by consistently throughout the latter part of the season. It's easy to look at the 126 points Toronto has given up in the paint over the past two games and assign blame to the team's interior players but most of those buckets have come as a result of blow-bys and mental lapses on the perimeter.
"It's a lot of things that factor into it and we've got to understand and learn that we've got to bring the same effort and focus every night," Casey said. "It's not something you teach. I mean, we're not going to change defensive fundamentals. You can't drill it, it's too physical. So it's a mindset of understanding where we are in the season and understanding what we're playing for."
"It's not a lack of energy. Guys are playing hard, we're just not focused on what we need to do and what we're trying to do scheme-wise and playing smart."
Surely some of the drop off can be attributed to injuries and having to shift rotations. Kyle Lowry returned to the court Wednesday after a three-game absence with a knee injury while Amir Johnson, the team's most valuable help defender, has missed most of the last four contests nursing his sore ankle.
Johnson participated in a light practice Thursday and is nearing a return to game action, though the coaching staff will be cautious with his playing time when he is able to suit up, as early as Friday at home to the Knicks.
"It's a day-to-day thing," Casey said of Johnson's status. "He probably could have went [Wednesday] night if it was totally needed but we need to get him healthy."
With or without Johnson, the Raptors will be pursuing history when they host New York Friday evening. With a win, or Nets loss - they're at home to Atlanta - Toronto would clinch its second division title in franchise history, while also matching a team record for most victories in a season with their 47th. They'll also have an opportunity to go 15 games above the .500 mark for the first time in their 19-year existence.
"That would definitely be an accomplishment," Johnson admitted, "but our main focus is just going game-by-game until we get to the top and then we can celebrate all our accomplishments."
Meanwhile, the Knicks are a desperate team, sitting two games behind the Hawks for the eighth and final spot in the Eastern Conference playoff race. Well rested after four days off, they could present a challenge for Toronto and its ailing defence.
"We expect nothing but they're best shot," Casey said. "They're going to come out guns blazing, playing hard, as we should after our defensive performance [Wednesday] night. So I expect both teams to come out, I think it'll be a hard fought game but we've got to play hard and smart."
DeRozan and Lowry are also chasing history as their career seasons come to a close. Lowry needs just one three-pointer to tie Morris Peterson's single season franchise record, previously set in the 2005-06 campaign, while DeRozan is 10 made free throws away from matching Chris Bosh's mark of 504 from 2008-09.