ORLANDO, Fla. – Toronto Raptors coach Dwane Casey believes the next step for his team is to work on developing its identity, preferably one seeded in toughness.
He’s hoping a four-game season sweep of the Magic can serve as the first step in that mission.
After watching one of their best efforts of the season slip away the night before in an overtime loss at Miami, the Raptors fought off a late Orlando charge and got a fadeaway jumper from DeMar DeRozan at the buzzer to secure a 97-95 victory over the Magic on Thursday night.
DeRozan led Toronto with 22 points, followed by Amir Johnson’s 21 points and 10 rebounds. It was Johnson’s sixth double-double of the season.
The sweep was the Raptors’ first over Orlando since 2006-07.
“The coaches drew up a good play,” said DeRozan, who scored 14 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter, missing just one of his eight shots in the final 12 minutes. “I just tried to get to my shot. Usually we run it going to my right, but that was the first time we ran it going to my left.
“I knew if I got a good shot off, I had a chance at it going in.”
Pumping his fist along with DeRozan after the shot went through, Casey said later that he got the response he was looking for from his team.
“I did, I really did,” Casey said. “Down the stretch everybody’s questioned our toughness and how tough we are. I’ve seen resolve and toughness the last couple of weeks. And for anybody who doesn’t feel like we’re in this to win it, they are totally wrong.”
It was a wild offensive night, featuring 12 lead changes, 12 players reaching double figures and several big baskets on both ends.
But for the Magic, it clearly was not the perfect way to begin the second half of their season.
They dropped their fourth game in a row and have now lost 15 of their last 17 overall. They’ve also lost eight straight games to teams with losing records.
Nikola Vucevic led Orlando with 19 points and 14 rebounds. Arron Afflalo added 16 points and Glen Davis finished with 15.
“I just think the basketball gods are against us right now,” guard J.J. Redick said. “They’ve turned their backs on us. We need to get back in their good graces. Tonight was a first step, if a loss can be a step in the right direction, because we competed the whole game.”
After three of their previous four games went to overtime, the Raptors found themselves in another close one.
Offence went through the centre position for most of the night, with Vucevic and Johnson as the go-to options. Then, the guards took over.
The Raptors carved out a 75-66 lead entering the final period, taking advantage of 12 Magic turnovers in the first three quarters.
Davis skied for a rebound and found a cutting Jameer Nelson for a layup to cap a 14-4 run and give the Magic their only lead of the second half, 84-83, with 5:19 to play in the game.
Defence tightened but the Magic committed only two turnovers the rest of the way.
One of them, a five-second count as they tried to throw the ball in, was followed by a jumper by DeRozan and layup by Alan Anderson that stretched the Raptors’ advantage to 91-86.
The Magic then got a little lucky when Redick was fouled on a 3-point make and completed a four-point play to tie it at 93-all with just 53 seconds remaining.
DeRozan hit a step-back jumper on the other end to put Toronto back in front, but that was quickly answered by a short jumper off a rebound by E’Twuan Moore to tie it back up.
The Raptors ran the clock down to under 10 seconds before Davis reached in and fouled Johnson, leaving Toronto with just 4.3 seconds, and setting up DeRozan’s game-winner.
“I thought there were multiple times throughout the course of the game where we got multiple stops in a row and that’s what we want to focus on, is being able to get stops on demand,” Magic coach Jacque Vaughn said. “That’s the basketball we need to see every night.”
In what was a pretty even first half that featured 10 lead changes, the Raptors took a one-point lead into the locker room. Vucevic and Johnson carried their teams with 14 points apiece in the half.
Vucevic lived around the rim, getting several baskets off put backs and tip-ins. Johnson scored from all over after being ignited by an early dunk.
Casey said he hopes his team feels the excitement that followed him off the court on Thursday.
“These guys are competing their butts off, have been every game,” he said. “Whether it’s my fault, or whoever’s fault it is, they have been competing. That’s one thing you can’t question.
“They’re competing to win and tonight’s another example.”
Notes: The Raptors earned just their fifth win on the road this season. …Davis received his fourth technical of the season late in the first quarter. …The Magic fell to 1-15 when forcing 10 or fewer turnovers this season.
Follow Kyle Hightower on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/khightower.