TORONTO â€” Late in the third quarter Sunday afternoon, Kyle Lowry threw his arms in the air gesturing the Air Canada Centre crowd to stand up and cheer.
The fans needed little prodding.
Lowry had just fed DeMar DeRozan for a driving dunk as part of a thoroughly dominant third-quarter performance by the Toronto Raptors, en route to a 116-101 victory over a horrible New York Knicks team.
With their 27th victory coming one game before the midway point of the NBA season, the Raptors are guaranteed of at least tying their best first half in franchise history: 27 in 2014-15. And they’ve already topped the 26 wins they had at the midway point last season en route to a franchise-best 56-win regular season.
The difference this season?
“We’re not putting ourselves in predicaments where we’ve got to fight extremely hard just to get back in the game, with a run late like we did last year,” DeRozan said. “We’re taking advantage of the third and fourth quarters to come out even more aggressive, and it’s paying off.”
DeRozan finished with 23 points, while Lowry had 16 to go with nine assists, in just 28 minutes of action apiece. The two all-stars spent the fourth quarter on the bench, a bonus that could pay off big come the grind of the post-season.
“It’s huge,” coach Dwane Casey said. “To cut down (DeRozan’s) minutes, cut down Kyle’s minutes is important. You don’t see it all at once, but as the year goes on, movement gets a little slower so we want to make sure we watch their minutes and when we play that way and get leads, you can get rest.”
Jonas Valanciunas recorded his 15th double-double of the season with 12 points and 16 rebounds for the Raptors (27-13), who are 8-0 against Atlantic Division opponents. Norman Powell contributed 21 points, while DeMarre Carroll had 20, and Terrence Ross chipped in 12.
Carmelo Anthony had 18 points to top the Knicks (18-23), while Derrick Rose â€” who landed in hot water earlier in the week after missing a game without notice to return to Chicago for a family emergency â€” added 16.
The Raptors were coming off a 132-113 thumping of Brooklyn on Friday that set a franchise-high for points in a non-overtime game, and saw them score 42 points in the fourth quarter.
No late-game heroics were needed Sunday. The Raptors broke the game open with a 25-2 run to start the third quarter, having their way against a Knicks team that all but disappeared on the defensive end. The Raptors locked down on the defensive end, holding New York to just eight points in the frame.
“We’re not going to become a defensive juggernaut overnight but the way we played the third quarter has to be our disposition, at least make people feel us,” Casey said. “If we’re just going through the motions trying to win 50 games, cool. But if we want to do something important, we have to make sure we play like we did in the third quarter.
“We don’t want to stay the same, we’ve got to continue to work and get better, not just be happy stacking up wins.”
Toronto led by as many as 38 points twice in the third, and took an insurmountable 96-62 advantage into a fourth quarter that saw Casey sit all of his starters.
The Knicks would pull to within 13 points with just a minute to play, but the game was all but over.
“We weren’t good enough playing defence and it just ballooned up from there,” Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek said of his team’s horrible third-quarter effort.
Comparing the Raptors to last season, Powell said he believes they have more chemistry.
“We are a lot more together. Not that we weren’t last year, but I think the guys coming back, knowing our roles more, (Carroll) is healthy, so we have all our starting five back for a long part of the season. I think that’s what is helping us. The veteran guys being able to play and play off one another and the second unit is still coming in and producing.”
Toronto’s Patrick Patterson sat out the game with a strained left knee, while the Knicks were without Kristaps Porzingis (sore Achilles).
The Knicks put up a decent fight through a first quarter that saw the Raptors hold a brief eight-point lead. Toronto took a 27-26 advantage into the second.
The Raptors began the second quarter with a 12-2 run, to open an 11-point lead on their visitors. A DeRozan finger roll had Toronto up by 16 points with 3:11 left to play, and the Raptors took a 69-54 lead into the halftime break.
The Raptors play their next three on the road, opening Tuesday in Brooklyn. They play in Philadelphia on Wednesday, then Charlotte on Friday before returning home to host the Phoenix Suns next Sunday.
Lori Ewing, The Canadian Press
Note to readers: This is a corrected story. An earlier version reported that the Raptors had 49 wins last season.