The Toronto Raptors dug out of 19-point hole versus the Cleveland Cavaliers but couldn't provide the final push to seize what would have been one of their biggest wins of the season.
LeBron James rolled for 29 points – 15 of them in the fourth quarter -- to hold off the Raptors 120-112, which boosts the Cavs' record to 39-24 and pulls them into a virtual tie with the Raptors for second place in the Eastern Conference.
The Raptors sat Kyle Lowry for a third straight game for some much-needed rest and to heal some minor undisclosed ailments. Jonas Valanciunas had 26 points and 11 rebounds, while a monster fourth quarter by Lou Williams helped him to 26. DeMar DeRozan added 25.
"I was disappointed we got down 19 but was proud of the way our team fought and scrapped," said Raptors coach Dwane Casey. "We shouldn't have dug ourselves such a big hole, but the fight and the scrap – those are things we can build on."
The Cavs and Raptors were playing basket for basket in the first quarter behind a quick dozen by DeRozan. While Toronto's Lithuanian seven-footer was contributing early, he was trading baskets with Cleveland's Russian big man Timofey Mozgov.
In the second quarter, the Cavs began to slowly creep ahead, building a seven-point pad. The Raptors' reserves chipped back briefly, before the Cavs sped ahead by 12, largely thanks to stellar three-point shooting by Kevin Love and James Jones and exquisite passing by James and Kyrie Irving.
The Cavs slowed DeRozan considerably in the second quarter, as he managed just two shots, making one. Just two of Toronto's nine three-point shots had fallen by half-time, while Cleveland hit seven of their 18 and took a hefty 57-43 lead into the locker room. The Raptors were missing some defensive rotations, and Love was getting loose.
This was the Cleveland Cavaliers team everyone yearned to see when King James announced that he was coming home, and the franchise brought Love along for the ride, muscling up a team lead by the dynamic Irving. Those expecting rapid success from the very moment of James' arrival were disappointed early on when they began a mediocre 19-20. But then beefed up with more talent by adding Mosgov, Iman Shumpert and J.R. Smith and have played an NBA-best stretch of 20-4 since Jan. 15.
The Air Canada Centre crowd was eerily quiet early on Wednesday, still reeling, it seemed, from seeing its team manhandled by the Golden State Warriors five days earlier. The Raptors had just snapped a five-game losing streak in Philadelphia on Monday, and this night was going very much back the down-trodden direction. The Raptors were also missing a vital bit of their edge without Lowry in the lineup, the floor general who dives to the floor for loose balls and has spearheaded so many late-game comebacks.
Cleveland pulled ahead by 19 in the third before Toronto laboured away and narrowed the lead to eight behind hooks and put-backs by Valaciunas and drives and jumpers by DeRozan and James Johnson. The Tone of the night shifted dramatically when Valanciunas got physical with James as he drove to the hoop, and the Cavs star landed in a heap on the floor as the Raptors big-man gritted his teeth and the Raptor faithful went wild. They were futher elated when James missed the two free throws he was awarded after Valanciunas was slapped with a flagrant foul.
"I wasn't trying to hurt him; I was just trying to stop him from dunking the ball, I was protecting the rim, that's it," said Valanciunas. "An easy foul is not going to work on him."
Suddenly it was a four-point game as Williams started the fourth on a 6-0 run. Terrence Ross hit a critical three-pointer to bring the Raptors within one inside nine minutes – the first he had made on four attempts that night. Then Toronto actually pulled ahead by two.
That was when James really came alive for Cleveland, netting 15 fourth quarter points, including back-to-back threes.
"We started blitzing [James] with JV, but when you do that you're going to give up something else – we gave up some threes," said Casey. "When you blitz him he'll find Jones or Smith, and if you don't, he'll buffalo right to the rim. You pick your poison with him."
The 21 fourth-quarter points by Toronto's Williams weren't enough for the win – Toronto's comeback fell short by a few defensive stops, and the Cavs simply took the game over again. Irving finished the night with 26; Love had 22 and ten boards.
The Raptors fell to 38-23.
"At this point, 60 games in, it's going to take a lot of fight when fatigue starts to jump on you and the games are coming really fast," said Williams. "You have to have guys willing to step on the court and fight until the end."
The Raptors now head back out on the road to face the Charlotte Hornets, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs. They won't play at home again until March 13.