TORONTO – Even at their hottest, the Toronto Raptors couldn’t find a way to overcome LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers.
James amassed 34 points, eight rebounds and seven assists as the Cavs wrested sole ownership of first place in the Eastern Conference with a 116-112 win Monday, ending Toronto’s six-game winning streak in yet another tense, tightly contested game between two top teams that are becoming increasingly familiar with each other.
James had significant help from his supporting cast, with Kevin Love posting 28 points and 14 rebounds and Kyrie Irving overcoming early foul trouble to put up 24 points and seven assists for the Cavaliers (14-5).
DeMar DeRozan scored 31 points while Kyle Lowry added 24 points and nine assists for the frustrated Raptors (14-7), who seem increasingly convinced that the margin of error against the Cavs is tiny.
“We’ve got to play a perfect game to beat a team like that,” head coach Dwane Casey lamented after the game. “Whether it’s mental breakdowns or whatever, all those little things matter in the flow of a game.”
A back-and-forth affair through the entirety of the first half, Cleveland only started to pull away as James hit his stride in the second. In the third quarter, he drove again and again, at one point sucking in the defence on consecutive plays before assisting on back-to-back Love threes to put the Cavs up 85-74.
When the Raptors clawed back in the fourth thanks in part to some timely three-pointers from Terrence Ross and typically kinetic guard play from Lowry, James again took over, eventually pouring in seven straight points to lift Cleveland to its biggest lead of the game, 107-92.
At that point, the Cavs seemed poised to cruise, but the ever-pesky Raptors wouldn’t relent.
First, a driving layup from Lowry cut Cleveland’s lead to 112-107 with 35.3 seconds left. Then after a pair of free throws from Irving, DeRozan kept pace with a six-foot turnaround jumper.
After a subsequent Irving turnover at the other end, DeRozan seemed to cut Cleveland’s lead to 114-112 with a thoroughly contested three-point heave from the corner that brought the Air Canada Centre crowd deliriously to its feet, but upon review, referees ruled he was out of bounds when he took the shot.
For the Raptors, it was just another exasperating encounter with the Cavs, who are now responsible for three of Toronto’s seven losses this season.
“They know how to win,” DeRozan said quietly after the game. “They understand when they need to turn it up on both ends. With that, you can’t put yourself in a hole deeper than you’re already in.
And yet, Toronto and Cleveland seemed to be moving in opposite directions heading into the game. The Cavs had been scuffling, losing three straight games including double-digit losses against the L.A. Clippers and Milwaukee Bucks. The Raptors, meanwhile, rode sizzling long-distance shooting and suddenly crisp ball movement to six consecutive wins, including four straight blowouts won by an average of 30 points.
Of course, no amount of momentum could have made the Raptors comfortable after losing to the Cavs in the Eastern Conference final last year, and dropping their first two games this season by a combined seven points.
James was particularly vexing in those first two meetings – amassing 49 points, 21 assists and 17 rebounds while shooting 55 per cent – and once again Monday, the 31-year-old seemed constantly capable of slicing nimbly through the Raptors’ defence and parachuting passes to the perimeter for open three-pointers almost at will. In the second half alone, he managed 18 points, five rebounds and four assists to answer every Toronto rally.
And the Cavs supporting cast is rarely so sharp all at the same time. Aside from Love and Irving, Tristan Thompson of Brampton, Ont., was especially effective, with his 14 boards helping to explain the Cavs’ decisive rebounding advantage. Afterwards, Lowry called him a “superstar at his position.”
Certainly, it seems the Cavs and Raptors have each other’s attention.
“They beat us three times so far this year and they have our number right now, but we have a long way to go and a lot more regular season games to go and continue to play,” Lowry said.
“We’ll take this game as a lesson, a loss, broke our streak, but now we have a chance to start a new one.”
They’ll have to wait a while for another shot at the Cavs. The teams won’t meet again until their final game of the season on April 12.
Notes: Early in the game the teams’ trainers were as busy as their scrambling perimeter defenders. For the Cavs, James rose gingerly after completing a difficult alley-oop before quickly returning to action, while J.R. Smith collapsed in a heap with an injury to his troublesome left knee and didn’t come back. And Lowry was struck in the mouth by Love’s elbow while jostling for a rebound and needed a shot of novocaine to the lip before he could return. “Will be eating soft food tonight,” he muttered after the game.