TORONTO — With 13 games to go in what has the making of a record-breaking season for the Toronto Raptors, they’re walking a fine line — between resting players, maintaining momentum, and shooting for the No. 1 spot in the Eastern Conference.
Priority No. 1 for coach Dwane Casey: good health.
And so Sunday, it was Cory Joseph’s turn to rest as a mish-mash Raptors lineup pulled out a 105-100 victory over the Orlando Magic.
"I’d rather have health than anything else, and freshness. That’s so important," Casey said. "Believe me, nobody wants to win more than me, but the overall health of your players and the mileage and the minutes on your players’ bodies is something we’ve got to be smart with.
"It’s a double-edged sword. It’s important to our organization and to the city to fight for a championship, to even talk about playing for a championship is important, and it’s never been done here before."
DeMar DeRozan scored 25 points, while Luis Scola had 20, and Kyle Lowry added 18. Bismack Biyombo grabbed a game-high 11 rebounds to go with 12 points and six blocks, and Terrence Ross chipped in with 13 points for Toronto (48-21).
Joseph got the night off after already topping his career-high in minutes this season by a whopping 308. The Raptors were also missing Patrick Patterson (ankle), and Jonas Valanciunas and James Johnson, who have both been battling injuries. They were active but didn’t play.
The victory pulled Toronto to within one game of Cleveland for first place in the Eastern Conference, but the players echoed Casey’s sentiments in the post-game locker-room. Heading into the post-season healthy and strong is key.
"It’s a long season, you definitely don’t want to lose any momentum you have going, but at the same time your health is the most important thing, especially going into the playoffs," DeRozan said.
Scola added: "Of course we want to win games, of course we want to finish first, but the most important thing is just to build good habits and build good momentum… and then eventually when we get to the seven games of the conference finals, we’ll worry about that then."
Victor Oladipo and Evan Fournier led the Magic (29-40) with 21 points apiece. Andrew Nicholson of Mississauga, Ont., added 15 points and nine rebounds.
The Raptors were ending a home-heavy stretch that has seen great success. They’ve lost just twice in their last 19 appearances at the Air Canada Centre. They now hit the road where they’ll play all but five of their remaining regular-season games.
They roared out to an early 11-point lead, and looked poised for a relatively easy victory against the 12th-placed Magic. But Orlando had other ideas in a game the Raptors didn’t put away until the dying minutes.
Fournier drilled a three-pointer to cut the Raptors’ lead to just a point with 1:11 left, but DeRozan drew a foul on a basket, and the three points put the Raptors back up by four. Brandon Jennings scored with 34 seconds left, but that’s as close as the visitors would come.
Minutes later, DeRozan was teasing Biyombo during his interviews in the laidback post-game locker-room.
"We understand we’re going out there to have fun, we try not to get too uptight, get too high or get too low, we try to keep our sanity by still being human beings," DeRozan said. "And we do that every time in the locker-room, you see it a lot of times when we joke around on camera, but that’s just us.
"But we understand when we go on that court, it’s all business."
The Raptors were up 30-25 to start the second quarter, but the Magic clawed back and a pair of back-to-back buckets from Oladipo gave Orlando its first lead of the game 3:38 before halftime. Orlando went into the break up 55-53.
Orlando continued to pace Toronto through the third, and took an 82-80 advantage into the fourth.