TORONTO - With 12 games to go on the regular season, and their playoff spot all but locked down, the Toronto Raptors have to maintain their intensity.
That was DeMar DeRozan's message minutes after the Raptors beat the lowly New York Knicks 106-89 on Sunday afternoon.
"We've just got to stay focused and understand every game still matters," DeRozan said. "We've got to take something from every game, even though we're still going to the playoffs, we can't relax, we've still got to keep focused and understand we've still got to get better every time we step on the court."
DeRozan led by example with a team-high 23 points, including a couple of huge dunks, while Tyler Hansbrough added a season-high 18 points. Jonas Valanciunas added a double-double with 17 points and 10 rebounds.
Lou Williams added 13 points, Greivis Vasquez finished with 12, and Terrence Ross chipped in with 11 for the Raptors (42-28), who played without all-star Kyle Lowry for the second straight game. Lowry is nursing a sore back, suffered when he fell hard in Wednesday's win over Minnesota.
Hansbrough, whose previous season-high was 12 points, echoed DeRozan's statement: the Raptors have to make each game count down the stretch.
"We've got to realize what we want to do," Hansbrough said. "I think a lot of guys have the playoffs in the back of their mind, just because we know what we want to get right before we get to the playoffs, try to have some momentum going into there."
Lance Thomas led the Knicks (14-56) with 24 points, while the Raptors' former No. 1 draft pick Andrea Bargnani, who was booed during Knicks' player introductions, finished with 16.
Toronto led by as many as 17 points against the NBA's worst team, but looked disinterested for large stretches and allowed the Knicks to creep back to within 74-66 with one quarter left to play.
The Raptors pulled away in the fourth in front of a capacity crowd of 19,800 fans at the Air Canada Centre, and when DeRozan threw down his second big dunk of the day with 2:37 left, it had Toronto up by 19.
Raptors beloved rookie Bruno Caboclo was the beneficiary of Toronto's big lead, subbed in with just over a minute-and-a-half to play.
Showing improvement was more important than the win, said coach Dwane Casey.
"The win's important. . . we had a few lapses, but overall there was good intensity and good focus on both ends of the floor," Casey said.
The coach praised Valanciunas's strong game.
"What was I impressed with was he was much better on his defensive rotations. I thought he got over there, got to his spots quickly, he didn't hesitate," Casey said. "I was just as impressed with that as much as anything else."
The Lowry-less Raptors were coming off a thorough 108-92 dismantling by the Bulls in Chicago on Friday, which ruined the Raptors' beginnings of a winning streak — they'd won two in a row for the first time in a month.
They faced a far easier foe Sunday against the lowly Knicks who are missing Carmelo Anthony and former Raptor Jose Calderon.
DeRozan led the way with 10 points in the first quarter that saw the Raptors hold a 27-23 edge over the Knicks going into the second.
Toronto opened the second with a 20-8 run to take a 16-point lead, making it 17 before going into halftime with a 56-41 advantage.
The Raptors allowed the Knicks to shoot 53 per cent in a third quarter that saw the visitors pull within eight.
The Raptors are in Detroit on Tuesday and return home to host the Chicago Bulls on Wednesday.
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