The Toronto Raptors couldn't have done much more to cushion themselves for their first major test of the season — a gruelling trip west.
The Raptors won their sixth game in a row Sunday afternoon, beating the struggling New York Knicks 118-108 behind Kyle Lowry's 22 points and nine assists.
Then they rolled their suitcases out of the comfortable confines of the Air Canada Centre to board a flight to Chicago. Awaiting them: the Bulls, Los Angeles Clippers, Denver Nuggets, Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns.
"I'm ready for it," coach Dwane Casey said of the looming road games. "I've been preaching it, and we should be ready for it. Everyone is all excited. But again, reality is real, and we have to be ready for adversity whenever it hits. You go in with positive vibes and are ready to kick some behind, but when adversity hits that's when you find out how close we are and how we have to stick together."
The Raptors (22-6), who reached 20 wins before Christmas for the first time in team history, have thrived on their togetherness. Toronto is also 16 games above .500 for the first time in club history. Sunday's game followed a similar balanced storyline.
Lou Williams and Greivis Vasquez came off the bench to contribute 22 and 21 points, respectively.
Terrence Ross finished with 18 points, including a jaw-dropping dunk that saw him corral a long pass from Lowry and take flight near the free-throw line. James Johnson and Jonas Valanciunas finished with 10 points apiece.
Lowry, who has built his game on hustle and hard work, was at his bulldog-best. On one memorable play, the point guard bolted to save a loose ball, and was running so hard he ran halfway up one of the exit tunnels. He needed to grab on to a railing to slow himself down.
But the Raptors were blessed with a favourable early schedule. They've played more home games than any other team, and have capitalized on it, going 14-3 at the ACC this season. And their six-game winning streak came entirely against teams from the weaker Eastern Conference.
"It's going to be a challenge," Vasquez said on the trip west. "We're looking forward to this challenge. Any time you go to the west, it's not easy but I think we're good enough to come out with a couple of wins and do our job. We've got to remain humble and hungry and continue to work.
"It's important that we play good teams because it's really going to test our character," he added. "We haven't really faced adversity and everything right now is great, but I think we're ready for a couple of premium tests.
"We can't be satisfied because we've got a 22-6 record. We want more."
The Raptors' long trip coincides with the world junior hockey championships in Toronto. They don't return home until Jan. 8, when they host the Charlotte Hornets.
Casey said his team is past the point of fearing trips to the west.
"If something happens where we don't come out (with wins) let's learn from it, continue to grow and move forward," he said. "We are a growing team and we are going to hit rough spots in the road.
"It hasn't hit yet but it has in certain games and in certain areas. Like tonight our rebounding in the first half. Our defensive rotation and closeouts and getting stops in crucial situations came back and got us tonight."
Carmelo Anthony scored 28 points Sunday to top the Knicks (5-25), losers of 15 of their last 16 games.
Former Raptor Jose Calderon, who received a warm ovation during the Knicks' introduction, finished with 15 points and 10 assists.
The Raptors had needed overtime to beat the Knicks 95-90 a week earlier in new York, but Sunday was a far different story. Toronto never trailed and had cobbled together a 17-point lead by the third quarter.
The Raptors led 91-75 going into the fourth, in front of a capacity crowd of 19,800 at the ACC.
When Williams drained two free throws, it gave Toronto a 106-88 lead with six minutes to play, and prompted the crowd's late-game chant of "We want Bru-no!" in reference to seldom-used fan favourite Brazilian rookie Bruno Caboclo.
The Knicks would pull within 12 points a couple of times in the dying minutes, but that was as close as they would get until former Raptor Quincy Acy scored on a slam dunk with two seconds left to play.
The raucous fans were rewarded in the final two minutes when Casey subbed in Caboclo and fellow Brazilian Lucas Nogueira.
The Raptors played their 12th game without injured all-star DeMar DeRozan, but have fared well in his absence. They're 9-3 without DeRozan, who's sidelined with a torn groin tendon.
Toronto's Landry Fields was held out of the game after failing his second concussion test. Fields landed on his head in a frightening crash in Friday's 110-100 win in Detroit.
Vasquez addressed the ACC crowd pre-game, thanking the fans who travelled to Detroit for Friday's 110-100 victory there on Friday, and wishing everyone happy holidays.
Knicks forward and Montreal native Samuel Dalembert was ejected in the third quarter for a Flagrant 2 foul — a hard elbow to the face of Valanciunas.
The Raptors shot 50 per cent in the first quarter to quickly open up a 10-point lead. They went into the second quarter ahead 33-25.
Toronto continued to build its lead in the second, and a three from Williams put them up by 16 points with 5:21 to play in the first half. The Knicks ended the frame with a 15-6 run, and the Raptors took a 58-51 advantage into the dressing room at halftime.
Ross's slam dunk put the Raptors up by 17 points with 7:09 left in a third quarter that saw Toronto outscore the Knicks 33-24 and put them up by 16 points going into the fourth.Suggest a correction