If the league-leading Indiana Pacers provided the perfect gauge for just how much the Toronto Raptors have improved, the answer was: plenty.
DeMar DeRozan poured in 26 points to lead the red-hot Raptors to a resounding 95-82 win over Indiana on Wednesday, handing the Pacers just their sixth loss of the season.
“We work extremely hard every day so that we understand that if we go out there and play with the same intensity that we do in practice, when we’re going at each other, we can beat anybody,” DeRozan said. “That’s the mindset that we go in with when we play these opponents.”
The Raptors’ victory was their fourth in a row, eighth in their last 10 outings, and ninth in 12 games since the trade that sent Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings.
Toronto also snapped Indiana’s five-game winning streak.
Terrence Ross added 18 points for Toronto (15-15), while Kyle Lowry had a season-high 14 assists to go with 13 points, and Jonas Valanciunas scored 13 points and grabbed nine rebounds.
“Everybody is playing for each other, nobody has any secret agendas, everybody wants the same goal,” Ross said. “We’re all on the same page, and that’s something we’re getting better at.”
Raptors coach Dwane Casey had talked before the game about the chance for his players to test themselves against the best in the league, to see how much they’d improved and how far they still had to go.
“We did a good job, the guys battled,” Casey said afterward. “We came in hungry and fought for 48 minutes, stayed with the game plan and executed.”
Roy Hibbert scored 16 for the Pacers (25-6) before fouling out with 3:25 to go, while Paul George added 12 and Danny Granger finished with 11.
The Raptors’ confidence was soaring going into Wednesday’s game, and just a night earlier they were down by five heading into the fourth quarter at Chicago before rallying for an 85-79 victory over the Bulls.
They’d shown more fight in the past couple of weeks than in recent memory, and were making a habit of fourth-quarter comebacks.
But they didn’t need one Wednesday.
The Raptors led by as much as nine points against a Pacers team that came into the game with a 9-0 record against Atlantic Division opponents, and fought back from a Pacers rally to lead 66-63 going into the fourth quarter.
They found another gear down the stretch. Back-to-back buckets by DeRozan then a steal by Ross that turned into a Lowry basket with 2:54 to play had the crowd on its feet screaming and put Toronto up by 11.
Afterward, Pacers guard George Hill said the Raptors “beat us at our own game.”
“They played better than us tonight,” Hill said. “Normally we come out and have a tremendous third and fourth quarter but tonight they hit first.”
The thrilled Air Canada Centre crowd of 18,271 stood and cheered the Raptors off the floor after the final buzzer.
The Raptors won with crisp ball movement, doling out 27 assists on 34 made field goals, against one of the best defensive teams in the league.
They were also solid on defence.
“It says a lot,” DeRozan said on his team’s defensive effort. “We’re going to go out there and battle with the best of them night in and night out. We don’t care who you throw out there in front of us, we’re understand they’re going to throw a punch, and we’re going to throw punches back.”
Lowry led the way in defensive play — the point guard who tops the team in taking charges took one on Hibbert’s sixth foul.
“You just sacrifice yourself for the benefit of the team. That’s what we’re all doing out here, sacrificing themselves and their game to be a better team,” Lowry said.
The players praised the noisy crowd that was on its feet for the final few minutes.
“Honestly, it was probably the best crowd I’ve seen since opening night of last year,” Lowry said. “That’s what we need in this building. We want our fans to have a reason to cheer, and I think we’re giving them a reason to cheer.”
The Raptors opened with one of the best all-around quarters of the season, with 10 assists on 11 made field goals. They fell behind by six early but outscored the Pacers 24-8 to the end of the quarter to lead 26-18 heading into the second.
A three-pointer by Raptors newcomer Greivis Vasquez gave Toronto a nine-point lead early in the second, but the Pacers parlayed 10 Raptors turnovers into nine points, and Indiana took a 44-40 lead into the dressing room at the break.
The Pacers were the ones turning the ball over in the third, with the Raptors scoring 14 points on seven Indiana giveaways. Tyler Hansbrough tied the game with a dunk with 1:08 left in the quarter, then John Salmons drained a three to send the Raptors into the fourth up by three points.
Notes: The Raptors are in Washington on Friday to open a three-game road trip against three tough Eastern Conference teams. They’ll play at Miami on Sunday, then Indiana on Tuesday before returning home to host Detroit on Jan. 8. . . The Pacers beat Toronto 91-84 in Indiana on Nov. 8.