Navigating the final stretch of the regular season, the Toronto Raptors want it all: victories and rest.
On an afternoon when they sat some key players and trailed the Orlando Magic for most of the day, the Raptors recovered with a fourth-quarter comeback to salvage a 105-100 win. They improved to 48-21 and now trail the Eastern Conference-leading Cleveland Cavaliers by just a single game.
The Raptors, who lost in the first round of the playoffs two years running, are being strategic. They want to keep to stockpiling wins while maximizing valuable rest time for their heavily used players in the final four weeks of the regular season.
Toronto leads Orlando by some 18 games and 10 spots in the East standing, yet the Raptors were far from dominant for most of the afternoon.
The team sat Cory Joseph (rest), Patrick Patterson (ankle), James Johnson (Achilles tendon) and Jonas Valanciunas (wrist). DeMar DeRozan led with 25 points, Luis Scola had another big game with 20 points and eight rebounds, and Kyle Lowry scored 18.
The Raptors, who have been trying to develop youngsters as well as rest key players before the playoffs, played rookie point guard Delon Wright in place of Lowry's backup, Joseph. Wright had a solid six-point game with two assists.
The Raptors let things go south in one messy quarter, as they have done in many games recently. They led by as much as 11 early in the first half before allowing the Magic to outscore them 30-23 in the second quarter. Toronto trailed 55-53 at the half.
Both teams scored 27 points in the third quarter – nine from Scola – but for the most part, Orlando held the lead. It wasn't until late in the fourth that Toronto seized control by scoring 10 unanswered points and then holding on.
The newest Raptor, Jason Thompson, was called upon, and he learned late-game plays on the fly after just joining the team a few weeks ago. He grabbed 10 boards and added eight points. Bismack Biyombo was big again with 12 points, 11 rebounds and six blocked shots, starting in place of Valanciunas.
"[Orlando] made us execute some things with different people, which is going to help us down the road," Toronto coach Dwane Casey said.
Toronto finishes a demanding stretch of five games in seven days with a 4-1 record.
Toronto has 13 games left in the regular season, eight against teams with winning records. The Raps have remained on Cleveland's heels by winning 13 of their past 16, with 12 of the victories coming at home. The Raptors are 17-2 in their past 19 at the ACC, but eight of their remaining games are on the road. They are only one win away from the franchise-record 49 victories of last season.
"Of course we want to win games, of course we want to finish first, but the most important thing is to build good health and good habits going into the playoffs," Scola said. "We're fighting for [first place] it because it's the right thing to do, but we can't lose sleep over it."
The Raptors leave the comforts of home to play in Boston, Houston and New Orleans. Casey said he wanted to rest his players early rather than wait until the final few games.
"What I don't want to do is hold a bunch of guys out the last two weeks and then be out of rhythm when the playoffs start, since it's too hard to ramp it up from zero to 100 when the playoffs start," Casey said. "I'd rather have health and freshness than anything else. No one wants to win more than me, but the number of minutes on these players' bodies is something we've got to be smart with. It's important for this organization and this city to fight for a championship, and it's never been done here before."