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TSN Raptors Reporter

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SAN ANTONIO - No matter how bleak things appear right now, the Raptors will almost certainly hold a top-four seed in next month's NBA playoffs, that much we know.

Who will they face in the first round? Who should they want to face? It almost doesn't matter should they go into the postseason resembling the team that has crashed back down to earth in the new year.

It's been a tale of two seasons for Dwane Casey's club. The 2014 edition which started off the campaign 24-8 could compete with just about any Eastern Conference opponent in a seven-game series. The group that has gone 14-17 in 2015, 2-8 since the All-Star break, doesn't stand much of a chance, regardless of their match-up.

One way or another, their true colours will show in the playoffs but with 19 regular season games to go, now is a reasonable time to wonder, who are these guys, really?

"We are not as good as we were earlier [in the season] and we are not as bad as we seem right now," Casey said after a Monday afternoon practice at the AT&T Center, ahead of Tuesday's meeting with the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs.

"We are somewhere in between. Unfortunately we are playing against some very good teams that are in desperation mode right now. Everybody coming up is playing for something and we are too. We have to ratchet up our game for longer periods of time and keep that focus."

This reality should not come as much of a surprise. Many, including Casey himself, cautioned overzealous portions of the fan base and media during an unsustainably hot start that included a home-heavy schedule and several fortunate victories that masked some bad habits.

They were never supposed to be that good, not this quickly anyway, and they never were. But, hope is not lost. Not that long ago the Raptors had taken 10 of 12 games, including impressive wins over the Clippers, Spurs, Wizards and Hawks, in succession. In spite of their flaws, if they're at full strength and playing up to par, a first-round series victory is still a reasonable proposition.

Despite their recent skid, those within the organization have not lost sight of that goal and remain optimistic that they can turn this around in time to see it through.

"Yeah, the confidence is there for sure," said DeMar DeRozan, who has picked up his game, averaging 28.5 points on 52 per cent shooting in four games this month after scoring just 16.7 on 34 per cent in February. "The confidence is there. Because we're still in a great position and we're not here for no reason, we understand that. Like I said, all we need is that kickstart game."

"Everybody is disappointed we kicked a few games," Casey added. "But there is nobody that is down on the process or down on each other or down on what we are trying to do. They understand and see we have to do things for a longer period of time. Now the big thing is all this is talk. We have to go out and do it for longer periods of time. We all know what is going on. We see what is going on. We show them the film, we work on it in practice. Now we have to do it for longer periods of time against some very good teams."

It's a long season. Very few teams are consistently great, or consistently terrible, for the duration. There are peaks and valleys, to varying degrees depending on your resolve as a team.

The Raptors still lead the Atlantic Division by a whopping 12 games - more than any other division leader - over Boston and Brooklyn. Winning their division guarantees them no worse than the fourth seed but they could still relinquish home-court advantage if the fifth-place team has a better record.

If the playoffs were to begin today, they would host the fifth-seeded Washington Wizards, who are in a similar tailspin. The Wizards have a record of 13-19 since Jan. 1 and they too have lost eight of their past 10 games. All-Star point guard John Wall recently admitted to feeling "beat up", a familiar concern for those who have watched Kyle Lowry's game deteriorate in Toronto.

Of course, the simplest explanation for the Raptors fall from grace is Lowry's dip in production, which may or may not be injury-related. Through the seasons first two months, the Raptors' point guard was putting in MVP-calibre work, masking many of the team's warts and taking them to another level. Since then he's been average, at best. He averaged 16.6 points on 37 per cent shooting in January as they began to lose. Those numbers fell to 11.9 on 34 per cent in February before the team decided to give him three games off to rest his aches and pains.

The most obvious path to a late-season or playoff resurgence is if Lowry can rediscover his November-December form. Outside of that, Casey is holding out hope that the continuity they valued so highly during the summer and into this year can be called upon once again.

With their opening night starting lineup back together for the last two games, Terrence Ross now becomes a crucial factor in this team's ultimate trajectory. The Raptors don't need the world from Ross, they never have. What they're asking of him is relatively simple, yet hugely important: defend his position, hit open shots.

"It's still a work in progress," said the third-year swingman, who was a bright spot in Sunday's 108-104 loss to Oklahoma City, scoring 20 points and hitting six three-pointers on nine attempts. "We're getting there. Nothing's ever perfect but we're taking steps to be better than we were the previous day."

"One [good] game will get our mojo back, get this monkey off our back," Casey said. "We just have to get through this stretch, this bad patch and get ready for the last 19 games we have."