Lewenberg: Raptors carry momentum into break with win

Josh Lewenberg

2/13/2014 2:04:44 AM

TORONTO - With his teammates primed to go their separate ways after Wednesday's game, many of them playing like it in the first half, DeMar DeRozan took one final opportunity to validate his upcoming trip to New Orleans.

For the better part of the opening 24 minutes, the Raptors played like a team that was ready to start its long weekend one day early by succumbing to a popular pre All-Star break pitfall; the letdown game.

"I think both teams were on vacation before the game started," Dwane Casey said of his team's flat start, hitting just one of 12 field goals at the outset of a crucial meeting with the Hawks and trailing by eight early, until DeRozan sparked the Raptors slumbering offence.

Were the Raptors looking ahead to some much needed time off?

"I wouldn't say that necessarily, we probably thought they (were)" replied DeRozan, who scored 14 of his game-high 31 points in the first seven minutes of the third quarter, spearheading a lopsided second half and leading Toronto to a 104-83 win over Atlanta.

"We picked it up," he continued. "We understood they were going to come out play hard because we are neck-and-neck in the race in the conference. We understood how much this game meant."

The Raptors overtook Atlanta for third place in the Eastern Conference standings last month and the Hawks have been knocking on the door ever since. With the victory, Toronto handed the Hawks - who now hold the fifth seed - their fifth straight loss and padded their own cushion over fourth-place Chicago going into this weekend's All-Star festivities.

At 28-24, the Raptors sit atop their division at the break for the second time in franchise history and first since they won the Atlantic in the 2006-07 season.

"It means a lot to be where we're at right now," DeRozan said, "but it really don't mean nothing unless we keep it up. We've got to keep it growing, we can't be comfortable with it because teams in our division (are) definitely still coming."

Leading by one at intermission, the Raptors outscored the struggling Hawks 59-39 in the second half, holding them to 30 per cent shooting and forcing eight turnovers while committing just one themselves. DeRozan made seven of his 10 field goal attempts, and all four of his free throws, in the half.

Most importantly the Raptors executed their game plan defensively, rotating and closing out hard, limiting one of the better three-point shooting teams in the league to four treys on 20 attempts from beyond the arch.

"We had to make sure we were there and the way the game started I (didn't) think we got the memo before the game," Casey said. "We continued to grind it, stuck with the game plan, guys stuck together and grinded it out."

It wasn't their most ascetically pleasing victory but its one that fell right into the Raptors' wheelhouse, one that played into the identity and personality Casey has urged his team to carry into the season's unofficial second half.

"Like I told our guys," he said, "the second half is going to be a grind. It's not going to be pretty (but) we don't want it to be pretty. It's going to be hard and everybody has to be committed in the locker room."

The break comes at a perfect time for the Raptors. Although they go into it with confidence having won two straight, both at home - overall they've won 10 of 12 at the Air Canada Centre - many of them could use the rest and relaxation time.

For the second straight game Amir Johnson was a spectator - fashioning a personalized Raptors jersey on the back of his vest as he watched from the bench - still nursing a sore right ankle. He'll have over 10 days of rest before the team reconvenes in Washington for Tuesday's game against the Wizards.

For the rest of the team this five-day layoff is an opportunity to heal various aches and pains that accumulate over a long season and refocus heading into the stretch run.

"Me personally I need the rest," said Kyle Lowry, who had another double-double - 16 points and 13 assists - on Wednesday. "I know everybody needs the rest. You get to mentally relax and physically relax also and it's always important to take care of your body at this time (of year). You rarely get a five-day stretch in the season so (we have to) take advantage of it."