Litmus test. Measuring stick. Meaningful game. For every adjective you can throw at it, tonight's game between the Raptors and the Cavaliers was also just "one of 82" as coach Dwane Casey said. That Toronto ultimately won the game 99-97, after being down by as many as 14 points while staring down perhaps the best player in the league in LeBron James, shouldn't matter in the big scheme of things. Not really. But then, of course, it really does.
For what's felt like the longest time, the Raptors have lacked the so-called "go-to guy." Chris Bosh played the part for a little while, and Vince Carter was definitely that guy back in the day. But as the Raptors have risen over the past two years, the knock on the team was their lack of a closing player. DeMar DeRozan, despite his improvement, can only get you part of the way there on most nights. Kyle Lowry, on the other hand, is a different story.
Lowry finished the night with a career-high 43 points on 15-of-20 shooting, nine assists, five rebounds and four steals. He shot 11-for-15 from the free throw line and hit a pair of threes. When there was a big play to be made, including the freakin' game winning shot, he was there to make it. A lot has been made as of late about Lowry's minutes load, but as the Raptors hung around just enough to make things interesting in the second half, it became clear Lowry would be playing. On this night, like LeBron, Lowry had to play if his team was going to have a chance to win.
A game against a LeBron James-led team is always in question. Among true difference-makers on the court, James remains one of the absolute best. Few can bend the game as thoroughly to their will as he can. After a first quarter that saw the Raptors fall behind, it was James that assumed calm control of the game. Only when he went to the bench, and Toronto went to their magical Lowry plus the bench lineup, did the Raptors come back. The score was tied for a time and it felt very winnable. But then LeBron checked back in and while the game stayed close(ish) for a stretch, the idea of a Raptors win began to inexorably drift away. This is the LeBron James Effect. It's hard to overcome.
It feels strange then to report on the fourth quarter, when the Cavaliers appeared in control and James, who finished with 25 points, seven assists and eight rebounds, was cruising right along. Who are the Raptors to argue with this kind of basketball? The team got nothing from James Johnson on this night, Luis Scola looked like a corpse, Jonas Valanciunas was largely quiet (and missed a chunk of time after taking a shot to the midsection by LeBron). Good lord, Anthony Bennett made a first quarter appearance! Things were grim. And this was before we learned that DeRozan, who finished the game 1-of-11 from the field, had the dreaded flu-like symptoms. The only encouraging signs were Patrick Patterson once again running the table with his plus/minus of 16, Cory Joseph clamping down on Kyrie Irving (10 points), Terrence Ross filling it up (15 points on 6-of-11 shooting), and Bismack Biyombo's continued insistence on bringing the maximum amount of thunder. And then there was Lowry, who, like LeBron, played the entire second half.
Whether he was making insane circus shots and drawing fouls, hitting some big threes, threading passes to teammates, or coming up with steals, Lowry was everywhere. The final play, in which Casey hinted at some other side actions that were supposed to go on, was only ever going to be drawn up for Lowry. He went at Irving, got the shot he wanted and drained it. It was a moment loaded with significance -- a Raptor closing a game thought to be lost.
Kyle Lowry is a bad man. #WeTheNorth pic.twitter.com/ibk1qbEvMd— Toronto Raptors (@Raptors) February 27, 2016
When you beat the top seed in the Eastern Conference...@Raptors #CrunchTime pic.twitter.com/8KstxxMAnO— NBA TV (@NBATV) February 27, 2016
The funny thing here, to me, is that I had actually written two paragraphs describing an eventual Cavaliers win. LeBron just felt inevitable. And with the Raptors struggling with foul trouble, and illness, and just bad luck, who was I to doubt the Cavaliers on this night? That's what great teams do to your mind and expectations, they assert a certain sense of control over the game. They close.
The Raptors now hold the tiebreaker over the Cavaliers and sit two games out of first place. It may be just one of 82, but when it's just one basket separating a win from a loss over the first place team, it adds up to something a little more than that.
What did you guys think of the game?