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Kyle Lowry #7 of the Toronto Raptors handles the ball in the fourth quarter against LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers in game four of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 23, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.

Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

There have been more important wins in Toronto basketball history, but given the occasion and the expectations, there has never been a bigger one in Raptors history than Monday night's.

After a Game 3 loss, everyone expected a next-level effort from the Cleveland Cavaliers. On Monday morning, LeBron James certainly did.

"I have a game plan tonight, personally, that I believe can benefit our team," James said.

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It doesn't read like much, but James delivered the line as a Namath-esque promise. In that case, he lied.

Riding a frenzied home crowd, the Raptors ground down the Cavaliers 105-99. Man-by-man, position-by-position, the Raptors simply outworked Cleveland.

"Someone mentioned that we're in it just to win one game and I disagree with them," Toronto coach Dwane Casey said afterward. "We're in it to compete for a championship."

He's said it or something very like it many times before. It's just starting to make sense.

The Cavaliers began fraying in the first quarter. By the second, they were bursting at the seams. The lead got as big as 18 points. Then the inevitable wobbles.

By early in the fourth quarter, Cleveland had begun working the hand-off from James. They scored on 14 consecutive sequences, eventually taking a lead.

But in the final moments, Toronto refused to cave. Huge shot followed huge shot. A Bismack Biyombo offensive rebound in the waning seconds, followed by a Kyle Lowry drive after a timeout, sealed it off.

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This is the spot in a typical game story where you insert the evening's hero. It was all of them. Every Raptor contributed something, in ways smaller and larger, adding up to an eye-popping whole.

Just one for instance – there were moments where seldom-used sub James Johnson looked better than, not just as good as, James. And he did it one-v-one.

A better for instance – Kyle Lowry scored 35 on 14-for-20 shooting. DeMar DeRozan scored 32. It was the first time a teammate combo had each scored 30 and shot better than 60 per cent in a conference finals since Charles Barkley and Dan Majerle. That was twenty-three years ago.

That's what people expected from the Raptors' guards. Clearly, they were saving it up for the moment it really mattered.

"It's a cakewalk for me once he get going," DeRozan said, pointing at Lowry.

Lowry's morose late-night practice session seems like a long time ago. In a series this unpredictable, a day is beginning is to feel like a year.

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What did not seem possible before the holiday weekend is now genuinely feasible. Toronto is in a best-of-three for the chance to compete in an NBA finals.

Based on the comprehensiveness of Monday's victory, it's not a slog any more. It's a home-court sprint. And for the first time, you would have to think hard before betting against the underdog.

Whenever the Raptors are good, they telegraph it with looseness. There was that unmistakable feeling in the pre-game. There was a little bait and switch when it was suggested that injured centre Jonas Valanciunas might play. He didn't. He may in Game 5.

Having been fined $25,000 (U.S.) earlier in the day for criticizing the officiating in Game 3, Raptors coach Dwane Casey was on a rhetorical jag.

When an American reporter wondered how Casey planned to prevent complacency from creeping in, there was an inaudible sigh in his reply.

"We won a few games this year," Casey said. "I always remind our guys, you can't get happy on the farm.

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Casey says this all the time, but why? Why can't you be happy on the farm? It's outdoors, the air is fresh and goats are adorable. Maybe farms don't perform at peak efficiency until the farmer is gripped by self-doubt and existential malaise.

There was more. Totally out of context, before and after the game:

On motivation: "I would much rather have to say 'Whoa' than 'Giddy up'."

On theology: "Nobody gives us a snowball's chance in you-know-where to beat Cleveland."

On Bismack Biyombo's athleticism: "He's always teasing us about chasing lions. I've got to go over there this summer and see that."

On LeBron James: "(I call him) a "monster" out of respect. Not a bad monster."

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No, no, heaven forbid. Not a bad monster. More Godzilla than John Wayne Gacy.

Though he was intermittently unstoppable, James did not dominate in the way you expected. Which is to say, every one of his dominations is supposed to end in winning and flexing.

At multiple points, his frustration was evident. He spent a good deal of time screaming at various teammates after plays. To a man, they slunk away from him. They know who the real boss is.

After the game, Cavs coach Tyronn Lue was publicly irritated for perhaps the first time since he took the job in January.

Asked if he'd ride the refs the way Casey had, Lue barked, "I don't take a page out of nobody's book."

He may want to start.

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It's never as simple as making shots. Some teams come in prepared to win, while others come primed to lose. You often can't tell which is which until it's over.

For reasons that are unclear, a Cleveland team that seemed an unstoppable force stalled during two games in Toronto. They were replaced by one that is fatally tentative. Watching them toss up brick three after three in the first half while they possess the most potent inside force in the game was baffling. They could not adjust to the idea that the usual plan had stopped working.

They fixed the 'Maybe We Should Start Using LeBron James' problem in the second half – hence the comeback – but pooched it in the end. Some nights James is Superman. On Monday, he was Clark Kent.

Mostly, the Cavaliers played as if they expected James to win it by himself. When he couldn't, the rest of them lost their heads.

They are a different team playing at home in Ohio. But given the way the Raptors performed here, you'd also expect them to be.

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