By Frank Pingue
TORONTO (Reuters) - The unexpected success of the long-suffering Toronto Raptors this season has instilled a rare bout of optimism on a team that is suddenly turning heads.
Long considered a National Basketball Association doormat, the Raptors were not on anyone's radar when the season began five months ago but have already clinched their first playoff berth in six years and look anything but complacent.
With starting guard Kyle Lowry sidelined with a knee injury and forward Amir Johnson forced to leave in the first quarter of Wednesday's game with a sore ankle, Toronto battled to a 107-103 win over a Houston Rockets team that is fourth in the competitive Western Conference.
"This is not a fluke," said Greivis Vasquez, who scored 15 points starting in place of Lowry. "We earn wins, and we earned a win tonight."
Pushovers no more, the Raptors lead the Atlantic Division by 2-1/2 games and currently hold the third seed in the Eastern Conference with a 43-32 record and in position to have homecourt advantage when the playoffs begin.
Wednesday's game showed how the Raptors are able to dig deep even while playing without two of their most important players.
But despite playing with a depleted squad, five Toronto players reach double digits in scoring, led by DeMar DeRozan's game-high 29 points.
"Guys stepped up," Raptors head coach Dwane Casey told reporters. "It's a good win.
"Big picture it's great. Every win, believe me, is great for us right now with what we're trying to do. Especially with Kyle and Amir out.
"Hopefully it gives our guys some confidence to go where we need to go."
The game was the latest example of how the team has bought into Casey, who has been preaching toughness and intensity all season while demanding they move the ball well and commit to a defense-first mindset.
"This is why we have a healthy locker-room (environment), we're not fighting egos, we know what's going on," said Vasquez.
"(DeRozan and Lowry) are going to score, those two guys are going to make winning plays. And whenever one of those guys goes down, we've got their back. That's what this team is all about."
The Raptors could have easily thrown in the towel this season and put themselves in prime position to secure the first overall draft pick.
In fact, many of the team's fans may have even been pleased with that result since the draft is considered to have one of the deepest classes in years and includes potential No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins, who was raised in a Toronto suburb.
But since the December trade of Rudy Gay, who led the team in scoring last season, the Raptors have looked like a totally different squad than the one fans had grown accustomed to in recent years.
They are suddenly moving the ball well and employing a defense that seems to be causing fits for opponents.
For a team that was widely predicted to finish near the bottom of the NBA standings this season, the Raptors are oozing confidence and could prove to be dangerous in the playoffs.
Still, despite over achieving as one of the season's biggest surprises, the Raptors are talking like a team with plenty left to prove over the final seven games of the regular season.
"There's a pride factor, you want to win, you want to win a division, you want to win and try and get home court," said Casey.
"We're in position, so there's no use of letting off the pedal now. Every game for me is desperate."
(Reporting by Frank Pingue; editing by Julian Linden)