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By beating Rockets, Toronto Raptors prove this year could be very different

Matt Petersen,

There may come a day when doubts about Toronto’s postseason strategy and stamina resurface, but today is not that day.

No, today is the day the Raptors – the always-competent but never-contending Raptors – halted the seemingly unstoppable Houston Rockets for the second time this season (Toronto won 129-113).

More important than the win itself was how it happened. It was the mid-range-loving Raptors who out-shot the quick-trigger Rockets from 3-point range. It was Toronto that out-ran Houston in fast break points (19-14) and points off turnovers (26-12). It was Canada’s team holding the lead for all but a couple moments in their 108-105 victory.

By snapping the Rockets’ 17-game winning streak, the Raptors may just be ready to start a new perception of themselves: that they are and will be threats to make the NBA Finals. As the Rockets found out on Friday, Toronto has all the pieces to make it happen.

DeMar DeRozan is a star. There is no getting around it, even if his career-high rate of 3-pointers taken (and made) pales in comparison to his flashier peers. Kyle Lowry is the ultimate floor general, setting the team’s pulse with his playmaking and emotion. When DeRozan rested against Houston, it was Lowry reminding everyone why he has as many All-Star nods in a Raptors uniform (four) as his running mate.

Continuity is an enormous asset come playoff time, and Toronto carries it in spades. DeRozan, Lowry, starting center Jonas Valanciunas and coach Dwane Casey have been together since 2012. Rookie swingman OG Anunoby is the only starter who was not with the team last year.

It is not the familiar names who have provided the biggest difference this season. When the Raptors’ heavy lifters falter, their reserves have proven capable of not only holding up the bridge, but strengthening its foundation. Against Houston on Friday, not one of Toronto’s bench players boasted a negative on-court plus-minus while committing just four turnovers combined. They have added to a newfound versatility unlocked by Casey and embraced by Lowry and DeRozan.

Such stability has allowed Toronto to rise above its more turbulent competition in Boston and Cleveland. They are in first place, with only the Celtics having a realistic shot of catching them.

This is new territory for the Raptors. They have never owned a No. 1 seed in the playoffs, nor truly enjoyed the status of being a “favorite.” They still may not be considered as such if they face a healthy Celtics or Cavaliers squad come Round 2 and/or Round 3.

After Friday night, it’s worth wondering whether that would be a mistake.