Fifty-four games down and 28 more to go.
If you squint your eyes and look out over the horizon, you'll notice a red-and-white strand of tape that signifies the finish line for each and every regular season for the Toronto Raptors.
In most cases, a horde of disgruntled fans is waiting there with pitchforks and flaming torches, preparing for a sacrificial burning of yet another disappointing year.
The basketball gods rarely take notice, at least not in recent memory. The team hasn't finished with a record above .500 since 2006-07 while also failing to qualify for the postseason each year since 2008.
The hearts of fans all over the country were bleeding red but for all the wrong reasons. The only problem was that instead of patching their wounds, they would ignore their symptoms and continue returning to the Air Canada Centre to repeat the process all over again.
Things seem different now, though. The cycle feels like it's running on empty, which is obviously a good thing.
Optimism is up, the roster is improved, and against all odds, the Raptors are in a prime position to end their drought of mediocrity.
A record of 29-25 will get the juices flowing.
Can the Raptors sustain this success? Is there a light at the end of the tunnel, or are we being set up for agony and defeat?
The second half of the season is under way. Here's what you have to look forward to over the coming months.
Note: All statistics/salary information is current as of Feb. 19 and is courtesy of Basketball-Reference.com.
It will come as a sigh of relief to fans of the Toronto Raptors, but to the rest of the league, it will almost seem like a downer.
Kyle Lowry's name has been at the forefront of trade rumors for quite some time now. Ian Begley of ESPN recently reported that the New York Knicks were in strong pursuit of his services and offering packages that include Iman Shumpert, Raymond Felton and Beno Udrih. That story has since died down.
In 54 games, Lowry is averaging 16.8 points, 7.6 assists and 4.4 rebounds in 36.2 minutes. As an unrestricted free agent, he has the right to sign with another team this upcoming offseason and leave Toronto with zero compensation.
General manager Masai Ujiri has a great mind for the game of basketball and a business acumen that is well beyond his years. He has been picking up the phone and making calls around the league to survey Lowry's value.
He won't come cheap, whether the team chooses to re-sign him over the summer or deal him before the Feb. 20 trade deadline. A 2014 first-round draft pick is essential to making a trade come to fruition, but no one seems willing to part with one.
Considering Toronto's standing in the Eastern Conference, there has to be some reluctance on Ujiri's part in pulling the trigger on a potential move involving his starting point guard.
Putting Lowry's contract to the side, why would anyone want to ruin the chemistry of this roster? Lowry has been a bona fide leader who was unceremoniously snubbed from the All-Star Game in grand fashion. His teammates love playing with him, and the fanbase respects him for the way he leaves it all out on the court.
Management is better off leaving everyone in place, riding the season out and hoping for the best in contract negotiations. Lowry is staying put, at least for the time being.
Don't think for a second that coming off the bench as the permanent sixth man in the rotation should be considered some sort of disrespectful demotion for Amir Johnson.
It's going to benefit everyone involved.
We've already seen the groundwork for such a move with Johnson joining the second unit for two games since the All-Star break. He's been dealing with an ankle injury over the past few months, so coming off the bench was meant to slowly build him back up to where he once was, both physically and from a team dynamic.
It's not as if Patrick Patterson has been a detriment in his place. If you look at their numbers this season, you'll notice that they're nearly mirror images of each other:
Minutes at power forward are being split fairly evenly anyway. Making a big deal about who starts is a waste of breath.
On Feb. 19 against the Chicago Bulls, Johnson came off the bench and played 26 minutes, which was four minutes more than Patterson. Coach Dwane Casey will go with the hot hand and even play the two together on occasion.
There's not going to be a controversy.
Each player has his strengths. Johnson is a better defender and rebounder (more valuable as a reserve), while Patterson is more adept on offense, being able to score both inside and outside more efficiently.
Their spots in the rotation will change, but their roles will remain the same. No fuss, no muss.
The man on the sidelines with his stylish suits and unparalleled passion for the game isn't getting the credit he deserves for this massive turnaround.
Voters will look at Indiana Pacers head coach Frank Vogel and what he's done in Indiana as the heavy favorite for NBA Coach of the Year. Terry Stotts in Portland, Jeff Hornacek in Phoenix and Scott Brooks in Oklahoma City are also deserving of consideration for the award.
It's not going to be enough, but I believe that the hard work of Dwane Casey will take precedent over some fairly big names and be a contender for the prestigious honor.
According to John Hollinger's team statistics at ESPN.com, the Raptors are 10th in defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) at 101.0. They're also fourth in opponents points per game (96.7), ninth in opponents' field-goal percentage (44.7) and ninth in opponents' turnovers (14.8)
Casey has always been a defensive-minded coach, but this season, his emphasis on that end of the court has shined through with his players. It's made Toronto one of the more underrated defensive teams in the NBA.
Whether it's working over the referees, calling out plays or motivating his team back in the locker room, he is constantly putting in the effort.
The last time a Raptors coach won coach of the year was Sam Mitchell in 2007. That was also the year the Raptors won their division, which is what they're in prime position to do again this season.
Coincidence? I think not. I may even look back at this prediction and slap myself for underplaying it.
Projected NBA Coach of the Year Final Standings
1) Frank Vogel - Indiana Pacers
2) Terry Stotts - Portland Trail Blazers
3) Dwane Casey - Toronto Raptors
If you recall, I predicted at the start of the season in my preview that the Toronto Raptors would finish the regular season with a record of 40-42. That would be good enough for No. 8 in the Eastern Conference.
Never in my wildest dreams did I think they'd have a legitimate shot at home-court advantage in the playoffs. As a fan, you want to see the team do well, but you also have to be realistic.
There are 28 games that have yet to be played for Toronto. Of them, only seven come against teams with a winning record. Six games are against teams in the Atlantic Division, which is great considering Toronto is 8-2 against their division rivals (Brooklyn Nets, New York Knicks, Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers).
Dwane Casey isn't ready to get carried away with talks about the schedule, via Eric Smith of Sportsnet: "The schedule is what it is. There are no teams coming in that are going to be easy for us—home or away. We have to...do it the old fashioned way. That’s what I’ve been preaching. That’s what we have to continue to do."
Past experiences do offer a lesson in just how bad things can turn, though. In 2009-10, Toronto had a 29-23 record as it entered All-Star weekend. A slew of injuries to key players (Chris Bosh and Hedo Turkoglu) caused the team's momentum to derail. The Raptors finished the year at 40-42 and just outside the playoff picture.
Nothing is ever a given in professional sports. By the snap of your fingers or the drop of a dime, you can go from the highest of highs to the lowest of lows.
Only four games separate the Raptors from the No. 8 Charlotte Bobcats (25-30). One losing streak could drastically change their fortunes instantly.
I'm simply keeping things in perspective. That would be the worst-case scenario, but that doesn't mean I believe it's going to happen.
There will be some speed bumps here and there, but with the strength of their schedule and a clean bill of health, the Raptors should keep things afloat and earn their second division crown in franchise history.
It may not seem like a big deal to an organization that has experienced consistent winning over the years, but to the Raptors, it would be a step in the right direction.
It's one thing to get to the playoffs, but making some noise while you're there is an entirely different demon.
Just look at the 2012-13 Milwaukee Bucks. They won 38 games and a first-round date with the Miami Heat, which resulted in a sweep. Now they're the worst team in basketball with the lowest attendance in the league and the fewest amount of victories (10).
When the Raptors won their first and only Atlantic Division title in 2007, they wound up losing in six games to Vince Carter and the New Jersey Nets in the opening round of the playoffs. Toronto was a high seed but was no match for a more experienced and prepared Nets squad when push came to shove.
The same logic applies to this season. Finishing as one of the four best teams in the Eastern Conference would guarantee nothing in late April and early May. As the saying goes, those who forget the past are doomed to repeat it.
It's all about the matchups. With the standings as close as they are, the Raptors could conceivably end up against any number of teams in the postseason. The Chicago Bulls, Washington Wizards, Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks are all in the hunt. Even the Charlotte Bobcats, Detroit Pistons or New York Knicks could make a late push.
Avoiding finishing as the No. 7 or 8 seed will be key. No one wants to face the Indiana Pacers (41-13) or defending champion Heat (38-14) until they absolutely have to. The Raptors are just 1-4 on the season against the top-tier teams of the conference.
A meeting with the Wizards, whom they've already defeated three times, would be welcome. The size of the Bulls frontcourt would be a problem for Toronto, as well as the edge in experience that a team like the Nets could bring.
No one said it was going to be easy.
Opportunity is going to be there for the taking. The Raptors have proved that they can hang with anyone in the NBA. Come the playoffs, they'll prove it.