LeBron James had 28 points (10-for-15), 14 assists and nine rebounds to pace the Cavaliers, who also got 24 points from Kyrie Irving and 21 off the bench from Channing Frye.
Meanwhile, for the second time in three weeks, the Raptors came up woefully short against the defending NBA champs. With five minutes left in the fourth quarter, the Raptors led by six, but were unable to close out a late flurry of baskets by James, Irving and Frye.
In the loss, Kyle Lowry had his best game of the young season, as he scored 28 points, made four threes, dished nine assists, poked four steals, and generally did all the things that make him a joy to watch. You know it’s a good Lowry game when there are multiple sequences late in the game where he’s running like a crazy person, arriving first at the basketball or keeping possessions alive for Toronto.
Beside him was DeMar DeRozan, cast in a supporting role for the first time all year, as his 26 points came on a less-efficient 27 shots. The man they now call Super DeMario (apparently) notably missed half his free throws tonight too; the four bricks proving the difference between a regulation loss and free basketball.
For those minor woes, though, our hats come off to the Raptors for competing. This game had a frantic, unraveling energy to it -- both teams had periods of lethargy, offset by pedal-to-the-metal offense. Nowhere was that more apparent than in the up-and-down play of Jonas Valanciunas. With the rest of the Raptors rotation bigs in foul trouble — Lucas Nogueira had five fouls and no points in ten minutes, Pascal Siakam had five fouls in 16 minutes — Valanciunas looked lost in the first three quarters.
As it was in the Eastern Conference Finals, Valanciunas was rendered ineffective when matched up with Tristan Thompson. The rebounding differential tells that story, as the big Lithunian nabbed just four rebounds in the first three periods, while Kevin Love kept swooping in from the weak side for 13 rebounds. In the fourth, though, he was untangled from Thompson and matched up with Channing Frye. A whole new ball game emerged.
Back and forth, the Raptors and Cavaliers went, exposing the other’s big man. For the Raptors, a Lowry-Valanciunas pick and roll proved demonstrative against the skinny Frye. Jonas was able to grab five of his nine boards in the fourth quarter, as he finished with 14 points. It also provided space for Lowry to operate, as he fired passes to a fiery Terrence Ross (18 points, four triples) and trusty Norman Powell (12 points) in a lineup born out of DeMarre Carroll’s night off.
With this group out there, Toronto was able to push back — a 91-84 score at the start of the fourth turned into a six-point Raptors lead by the five-minute mark.
The Cavaliers would have the last laugh in the Frye-Valanciunas matchup, though. Frye, who hasn’t missed a shot since coming to Cleveland (per Elias and me), rained in five triples — getting open looks thanks to a slow-footed Valanciunas and a laser-focused LeBron James. His looks, some timely Kyrie Irving shots, and a bevy of game-stalling whistles — which created half-court sets that benefit a well-oiled Cavs machine — proved the difference down the stretch.
Can the Raptors eventually beat the Cavaliers? If the first two games of this season are any indication, they’re awfully close to pulling it off. In the last five months, it’s apparent that Cleveland is starting to get up for games against Toronto. The matchups are starting to give off a big brother / little brother vibe, with LeBron allowing the less muscular Raptors just enough scoring to keep it interesting, before crushing their will. The Quicken Loans Arena was certainly up for this one, and the intrigue on the court was a working script for the playoffs.
In the end, though, there are no moral victories. The Raptors have proven they’ll be in the running for the top seed with Cleveland, but now trail 2-0 in the season series. They have another matchup in three short weeks on December 5, then again on the very last game of the season on April 20.
If the first two games are any indication, it’s hard to rule out that spring game having some meaning, especially if the Raptors are just as feisty in the standings as they are on the court.
Next? The 7-3 Raptors take on Golden State tomorrow night at the Air Canada Centre. To that we say: welp.