TORONTO - It was only 23 days ago that the Toronto Raptors hit what the team called the low point in its season — a humiliating 18-point loss to the Portland Trail Blazers that ended a winless road trip and prompted the suggestion that jobs were in jeopardy.
The Raptors turned the tables on the Blazers on Wednesday in a dazzling display of just how far the squad has come.
Rookie Terrence Ross poured in a career-high 26 points against his hometown team — including a buzzer-beating three-pointer to end the first half — to lead the Raptors 102-79 over Portland, the eighth victory in nine games for Toronto.
"Two star players (Andrea Bargnani and Kyle Lowry) getting hurt. Everybody looking at each other crossways. The whole organization. Everybody talking about firings. That was a crossroads for us," Raptors coach Dwane Casey said of Toronto's Dec. 10 loss in Portland.
"Our guys looked in the mirror, we all did,and decided 'Hey, we can't continue this way.' We started playing the game the right way, started sharing the basketball, starting more focus on the defensive end."
Wednesday's game was also the opener of a six-game homestand for the Raptors (12-20), a team that was hammered by a particularly unkind early-season schedule.
DeMar DeRozan added 24 points for Toronto, while Ed Davis had 19, Amir Johnson added 17 and point guards Jose Calderon and Lowry finished with 13 and nine assists respectively. And zero points between them.
"I don't know what kind of record that is, but not too many times you're going to win with your two point guards getting zero points," Casey said.
"We were just making the easy plays," Calderon added. "Today it was all the guys making those plays, and I'm cool with that."
Ross drained six three-pointers on nine attempts, including the buzzer-beater that brought the crowd to its feet and saw him fall over backwards as he watched the ball fall through the hoop.
Ross, the Raptors' No. 8 pick in last year's NBA draft, has been big during this strong stretch for Toronto, playing with a level of confidence that seems to go up whenever he steps on the floor.
He said the confidence to get more involved in the offence has come from his teammates.
"When I hesitate, I come back to the bench and they're all mad, they're all like 'Shoot,'" Ross said. "It's just something they tell me to do to get my confidence up."
Damian Lillard had 18 to top the Blazers (16-15), who were coming off a 105-100 victory at New York the previous night.
The Raptors played with the same energy and unselfishness that saw them through such a strong December, and never trailed, leading by as much as 18 points in the first half before taking a 78-61 lead into the fourth quarter.
Toronto didn't let up in the fourth, and back-to-back threes by John Lucas and Ross gave the Raptors a 25-point lead with 1:06 left on the clock.
"Our confidence is definitely high, we just had to get through adversity, we couldn't let it get us down, either you lay down or you man up, and that's what we've been doing," DeRozan said.
The Raptors shot 53 per cent on the night, and connected on 8-of-23 shots from beyond the arc. They pestered the Blazers into coughing up the ball 18 times, costing them 28 points.
"We didn't play well. We didn't play well from the opening tip. We were on our heels the whole night," said Portland coach Terry Stotts. "Toronto had a few days off and they've been playing very well, they've been playing with a lot of energy, I give them a lot of credit."
Casey said it's how he envisioned the team playing when it opened the season.
"How hard we played yes, togetherness yes, but we're still in that hole," the coach cautioned. "The old saying is 'If you're in a deep hole, stop digging.' At least we stopped digging.
"I love our team, I love the effort, I love the focus, but from a coaching standpoint, keep pushing, keep demanding, we've got a lot of games to go. There's a lot of areas we can get better."
Bargnani hasn't played since he suffered a ligament tear in his right elbow in the Raptors' 92-74 loss in Portland, but the Raptors haven't suffered in his absence.
There's no timeline for his return but Casey said the Italian centre would undergo another MRI before he would be cleared to play.
The Raptors raced out to a 10-0 lead in the first minute and a half of the game. DeRozan and Davis contributed 10 points apiece in the first quarter to help Toronto to a 25-17 lead heading into the second.
Toronto stretched their lead to 18 when Landry Fields converted a three-point play midway through the second. Ross's three at the buzzer sent the Raptors into the halftime dressing room with a 55-39 lead.
A pull up jumper by DeRozan put the Raptors up by 19 points with three minutes left in the third — their biggest lead of the game to that point — and they led 78-61 with one quarter left.
The game marked Jay Triano's first appearance back in Toronto since Canada's men's coach left the Raptors to become an assistant coach with the Trail Blazers. A large banner hung under a suite that read "Welcome Home Jay Triano!"
NOTES: Toronto forward Linas Kleiza didn't dress (sore right knee). . . The Raptors had lost their previous eight meetings with Portland. . . The Raptors host Sacramento on Friday and Oklahoma City on Sunday.
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