If you were a betting man, and you checked the standings a few times a week, you’d have stood a great chance for easy money Saturday night.
The tilt: Toronto (10-2) at Cleveland (5-6). Both teams on the second leg of a back-to-back. Leading the Eastern Conference, the upstart Raptors showed up 24 hours after routing the Bucks 124-88 back at home. The Cavaliers entered off another frustratingly flat loss, this time a 91-78 defeat against a seriously energized Wizards team in D.C. that dropped the former East favorites below .500 for the third time this season. On paper, it doesn't take much more than a rudimentary sense of logic to place your bets.
But then again, LeBron James has a way of affecting things like that. Cleveland was a three-point favorite at home, leaving you to wonder if the oddsmakers get TSN out in the desert. That said, if Toronto doesn't get its due after Saturday's 110-93 win, opportunistic gamblers should hope Adam Silver gets his wish to legalize sports betting.
After decrying his team’s -- and his own -- body language during last night’s loss, it felt like this could be one of those classic angry, dominant LeBron games. Addressing the media before the game, Raptors coach Dwane Casey predicted a “mad, angry approach” from the Cavaliers.
After the first period Casey bordered on clairvoyant, with Cleveland ripping off a 12-0 run to start the game and leading 34-21 after 12 largely brilliant minutes. These were the fantasy Cavaliers, making video gamers jealous as LeBron whipped flashy passes around the floor. With Kevin Love feeling his jumper, it seemed they might have turned a corner in cohesion. Meanwhile, Toronto came out shooting flat, with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan shooting a combined 1-for-9 from the field with 12 points off the bench from Lou Williams the only thing keeping Drake from throwing his champagne glass at his flat screen.
But it takes four quarters to make a whole. And given what we know about the Raptors, what happened next shouldn't have been all that surprising. But to be fair, Toronto has received far from full credit over the past year. This is a team that kept all of its pieces after 48 wins, added Williams off the scrap heap in a trade for John Salmons and yet will play an inexplicable nine of its 82 games on national television. The fact it had a massive comeback should have been a surprise thanks only to how convincing Cleveland can be in spurts.
As James and Love rested on the bench, the Raptors quickly re-entered a fight they’d recently trailed by 18 points. With Kyrie Irving as the only catalyst on the floor, Cleveland sputtered completely, unable to wrest back control. When the duo checked back in five minutes later, Toronto trailed by just two thanks to the gritty Lowry and another barrage of buckets from Williams, who now looks like one of the most shrewd pickups of the offseason. Williams finished with a career-high 36 points and made all 15 of his free-throw attempts. The reserve guard added a decisive step-back three to take a 56-54 lead into halftime, with a deep bench on full display and the script wildly flipped.
As the second half began and a 15-0 Raptors run effectively buried the Cavaliers for the night, the contrast between the two teams had never been more stark. Over-emphasizing the role of chemistry can quickly fade to cliché, but it was clear that Toronto possessed it in spades. The Raptors moved the ball for quality shots, dictated flow aggressively and with confidence, and to speak in platitudes one last time, they simply wanted this one more.
Those intangibles are a large part of why the Raptors have shed the dark horse and are now a legitimate contender in the East. They’re also precisely what James and coach David Blatt might spend the rest of the season searching for in Cleveland.
“We’re a very fragile team right now … and this isn't the even the lowest it can get,” James offered after the game. And James was far from his best, finishing with 15 points, 10 assists and five turnovers.
When James attacked the basket it looked as easy as ever, almost casual. But nights like this, as he drifts in and out of engagement while playing distributor with panache, he still leave us wanting more. While he can continue to talk about what needs to happen out there, Cleveland need more from him, too.
And while it should now be evident the Raptors are for real, it’s just as clear that the Cavaliers are simply not there yet. Cleveland outshot (43.2 percent to 40), outrebounded (46-34) and out-assisted (24-20) Toronto, and still dropped this one, turning the ball over 20 times to its opponents’ eight. In James' defense, there are much bigger questions plaguing this group.
It’s safe to expect changes in Cleveland’s rotation, but what untapped talent is left on an untested bench filled with journeymen? Magnetic as he might be, what if James isn’t some magical locker-room coagulant? And how many losses will it take for Cleveland to lose the benefit of the doubt?
“I’ve never had a losing record in my career, and I will not here,” Blatt told the media after the game. We’ll see if he’s right. But the story should really be the Raptors, and it’s cosmically fitting their ascent intersects with James and the headline-grabbing Cavaliers in free fall.
With a go-to-guy and a hard-nosed leader in Lowry, the explosive DeRozan beside him in the backcourt and a willing, experienced supporting cast, Eastern Conference title-watchers should focus one eye on Toronto. If they’re smart, they’ll keep the other on the sportsbook.