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Toronto Raptors' Jose Calderon drives to the basket in the first half against the Houston Rockets in Toronto, March 7, 2012.

Fred Thornhill/Reuters/Fred Thornhill/Reuters

The regular season has been a series of wobbly baby steps for a young and impressionable Toronto Raptors team, about the only constant - their ability to play good teams hard, only to wind up on the losing side of the equation.

It is a characteristic that coach Dwane Casey doesn't exactly cherish given his distaste for losing no matter what the circumstances.

But, hey -- it's better than losing blowouts.

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For a change the Raptors appeared on the verge of putting together a complete-game effort Wednesday night at the Air Canada Centre against the Houston Rockets, leading by as many as 17 points early in the third quarter.

True to form, the Raptors allowed the Rockets to clamber back in but this time Toronto (13-26) was able to prevail, displaying a seldom displayed killer instinct late in the proceeding to knock off the Houston Rockets (21-19) 116-98.

The Rockets were able to cut the lead down to four at 91-87 when Courtney Lee drained a three-ball with under eight minutes to go.

The Raptors exploded for a 13-2 run after that, sparked by speed burner Leandro Barbosa, who executed a difficult fast-break layup while getting clobbered under the basket by Houston's Kyle Lowry.

The fast break was set up by a nice defensive block at the other end by Linas Kleiza, who was one of several solid contributors, finishing with 19 points off the bench.

Barbosa made the free-throw to complete the three-point play that boosted Toronto's lead to a more palatable 104-89 with a little more than four minutes left to play and Houston's night was over.

"It was really good -- other than driving me crazy," Casey said about Toronto's ability to step it up after Houston made its run. "I was glad to see that we did bounce back and, again, make winning plays at the time.

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"That little stretch of time has been our bugaboo all year and tonight we fought back and fought through it."

DeMar DeRozan led Toronto with 23 points while point guard Jose Calderon enjoyed a huge night with 17 points and 12 assists.

It was anticipated that this would be a difficult year for an inexperienced Raptors outfit, one made even more arduous by the extended absence of leading scorer Andrea Bargnani, who has now missed 26 of the last 28 games with a strained left calf.

Casey said he'll have a better picture just how far his team has progressed this season once the 7-footer is back in the lineup.

But there has been noticeable improvement, especially defensively where the Raptors came into Wednesday's game allowing an average of 93.5 points against per game.

That ranked them 11th overall in the NBA and a huge improvement over last season where a leaky defensive unit was burned for an average of 105.4 points per outing.

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From a point differential standpoint the Raptors are a -4.2 through the first 38 games, a fairly respectable figure for a team with such a crummy record.

That is indicative of the many close encounters the team has experienced this season, including a mitt-full against opponents that are considered among the best the NBA has to offer this season.

In their last 10 games heading into the Houston contest, the Raptors have experienced a two-point loss to the Los Angeles Lakers, a three-point setback to the New York Knicks and the Memphis Grizzlies, to go with Monday's four-point loss to the Orlando Magic.

Close but no cigar is something Casey has had to get used to this season and while he hates losing on any occasion being close against the better teams gives him a bit more hope for next season.

"With a young team going with our core guys in those situations, I do put credence in it," Casey said before Wednesday's game. "But you don't get the respect around the league."

The Raptors would carry a 58-46 lead into the third quarter, a season-high for first half scoring for Toronto, who connected on an impressing 63.2 per cent (24-of-38) of their shots.

Toronto wound up hitting 59.2 per cent (45-of-76) from the floor, a season best.

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