After winning just four times through their first 23 games of the season, the Raptors have now won four times in their last four games since then, without their two most talented players in the lineup for any of those contests.

Here are some thoughts on tonight’s game:

Raptors 97, Pistons 91

- The Raptors just seemed to be in control of this game from the midway point of the first quarter on, and though they never really took a commanding lead, they appeared to have it in hand. The Pistons were able to keep it closer than it should have been with their presence on the glass, crashing the boards for 22 offensive rebounds and out-rebounding the Raptors 44-33.

- Some of those missed rebounding opportunities came as a result of Jonas Valanciunas, who otherwise enjoyed a solid performance of 12 points, five boards and a block in 27 minutes. Valanciunas couldn’t seal a couple of easy rebounds and had at least another two or three just go through his hands. I don’t know if it’s just that he’s still too anxious or perhaps that he gets his hands on so many loose balls that it’s almost impossible to secure them all, but whatever the case, once Jonas starts securing those extra opportunities, he’s going to be a walking double-double in this league.

- Before we get into individual performances, the Raptors’ defence needs to be lauded. By holding the Pistons to 91 points on just 41.7 per cent shooting, the Raps have now held opponents under 100 points in five straight games, limiting the Nets, Mavericks, Rockets, Cavaliers and Pistons to a combined 43.6 per cent shooting over that span. The rebounding needs to improve – as does the Raptors’ inability to defend without fouling – if they’re going to become a complete defensive team, but it certainly seems that the “Casey Effect” is back.

- Jose Calderon continues to dazzle as a starter, following up last night’s season-high of 23 points with tonight’s season-high of 17 assists. That now makes 21 career games of 15 assists or more. The rest of the Raptors franchise combined has 19. Calderon had nine assists after the first quarter (on 11 made field goals for the Raptors) in this one.

- Speaking of impressive performances, DeMar DeRozan continues to show the impressive evolution of his game, particularly on the offensive end tonight. Last week, I wrote about how DeRozan has struggled in the past when Toronto’s other offensive options are sidelined, but a more confident DeMar seems to be as comfortable as ever taking on the offensive load right now. He didn’t contribute in as many other areas tonight, but his 23 points on 19 field goal attempts don’t tell the whole story. DeRozan worked in the post, flashed his increasingly dependent mid-range game, and even hit a couple of first half threes that looked very, very smooth. He’s still far from a perfect offensive player or a finished product as an overall basketball player, but it’s hard not to be encouraged about the guy’s future right now.

- On the topic of a nice shooting stroke, enter Terrence Ross. The rookie scored nine points on 4-of-6 shooting in just 11 minutes tonight, making the most of his limited floor time. Ross will have to outplay some of the veteran players ahead of him in the wing rotation to earn more minutes, but if he can start to find an offensive groove to match his defensive awareness, the kid will find himself on the court in crunch time situations soon enough, as we saw Sunday against the Rockets. Over the last five games, Terrence is averaging just over nine points on 45 per cent shooting in about 19 minutes per game. I continue to believe that Raptors fans are underrating how good Ross can be going forward.

One play, in particular, stuck out to me tonight. Ross got the ball beyond the three-point line with just five seconds on the shot clock on a broken play, and instead of panicking or jacking a three, he put the ball on the floor and attacked the basket for a layup that just beat the buzzer.

- While I’ve always admired Amir Johnson’s hustle, I’ve also been frustrated by his inconsistency and lack of focus. Tonight, we got the full Amir experience. Johnson was pretty bad through three quarters, but helped the Raptors seal the game with some pure hustle plays down the stretch. Most notably, in his first play back after leaving the game with an apparent ankle injury, Amir deflected a pass, nearly came up with the steal, dove on the floor for the loose ball, then proceeded to win the jump-ball, all while playing with a bit of a limp.

Sometimes he’s frustrating to watch, but no one can ever deny the guy’s heart.

- Alan Anderson had a tough shooting night through the first three quarters, and yet when the Raptors needed a bucket the most, who else but the 30-year-old journeyman was there to knock them down? I continue to be amazed by the journey from 10-day contract guy to pre-season afterthought to fourth quarter specialist for Anderson, who is legitimately staking claim to the “glue guy” role everyone (including myself) thought was destined for Landry Fields. By the way, Anderson is making $854,389 this season compared to Fields’ cap hit of $6.25 million.

- John Lucas III still isn’t shooting the ball well at all, but he’s at least starting to give the Raptors good overall minutes at the point. Lucas is moving the ball when he enters the game, and the last two nights, his defence and steady play off of the bench have helped the Raptors either hold a lead or extend their lead early in the fourth quarter.

- Greg Monroe had a monster game tonight, and I generally like his hustle, but he’s a pretty poor defender who I’m starting to think is one of those typical players who puts up gaudy numbers without actually doing much to help a team win. Though I guess in fairness, he’s never had much help on some horrible, horrible Pistons teams.

- Over 17,000 people showed up at the Air Canada Centre tonight for a Wednesday evening matchup between two teams that came in with a combined 14 wins. It’s one thing when you get big crowds for the marquee teams and players, but the Raptors have been getting some pretty big crowds for even the weaker, no-name teams so far this season, and considering how bad this team has been, that’s a testament to the passion and loyalty that exists among the diehards in this market. I know it’s still a long shot, but if the Raptors can somehow find a way back into the Eastern Conference playoff race this season, the ACC will be a madhouse.

Raptors Player Of the Game: DeMar DeRozan – 23 Pts, 10/19 FG, 2/4 3PT, 1/2 FT, 2 Reb, 1 Ast, 1 Stl, 1 TO in 37:15

Pistons Player Of the Game: Greg Monroe – 35 Pts, 14/22 FG, 7/8 FT, 10 Reb, 2 Ast, 2 Stl, 1 TO in 34:36

The Raptors are in the midst of their first four-game winning streak in over two years (November 2010), and fans are justifiably thinking about grabbing a fifth straight W on Friday night against the Magic. Orlando has won four straight themselves and are playing some surprisingly good basketball, so while I certainly think the Raptors are capable of beating them, I don’t think anyone on this team or anyone who roots for this team should be looking past the Magic.

Either way, it should be a pretty good matchup between the Eastern Conference’s two hottest teams. And yes, I just said that.