The Cavaliers entered the season as prohibitive favorites to win the Eastern Conference. Yet here we are -- All-Star Break two weeks in the rearview -- watching real competition for the top spot.
The upstart breathing down LeBron James' neck? The Raptors, who are only two games back after a 99-97 win over Cleveland at Air Canada Centre Friday night.
The teams' stars traded shots in the final seconds. Kyle Lowry's long jumper went in, whereas James' 3-pointer did not.
It might be tempting to dismiss the result as a one-off, any-given-night type thing if it wasn't so similar to the 103-99 defeat they suffered in Toronto back in November. Cleveland had held a lead for most of both games before letting it slip away late.
So much has changed in the intervening months -- including Kyrie Irving's return from injury, David Blatt's dismissal and Tyronn Lue's promotion to head coach. And yet the result didn't.
"When you lose the way we lost, just mental mistake after mental mistake, those hurt more than anything when you can play better mentally," James told ESPN.
The King will get plenty of blame for taking and missing that final shot given his poor percentage from 3 this year, but the team was +6 with him on the floor Friday.
Two more serious weak spots for Cleveland:
Irving played poor defense, nothing particularly newsworthy on it's own. But he wasn't able to redeem himself on the offensive end where he's needed most.
He finished 4-11 from the field (0-2 from 3-point territory) with only 1 assist and 1 steal.
Compare that to Lowry, who poured in 43 points, dished 9 assists, grabbed 5 boards and picked up 4 steals.
The Raptors bench also outperformed their Cleveland counterparts, scoring 37 points and logging meaningful minutes. Terrence Ross and Bismack Biyombo combined for 26 points, while the entire Cavaliers bench managed 23.
Relief from reserves was key, as it helped compensate for a poor shooting night by DeMar DeRozan (1-11) in a way Cleveland could not for Irving.
It's worth noting that the Raptors deserve as much credit for the win as the Cavs deserve blame for the loss. Both of these teams are playing at a high level; we could just as easily be enumerating Toronto's flaws today if James' last shot had fallen.
But Cleveland's weaknesses are seldom more obvious than at Air Canada Centre. That makes the race for the East's top seed -- and home court advantage in the playoffs -- pivotal.
If the Cavs finish second to the Raptors, it could set up an Eastern Conference Finals series with four games in Toronto. And we have a pretty good idea of how that goes.
James and his squad must know this. Look for them to come out swinging against their next opponent -- the Wizards (1 p.m. Sunday, CSN).
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