CLEVELAND -- The Toronto Raptors have built a roster full of talented players who appear more poised than ever to challenge the Cleveland Cavaliers for Eastern Conference supremacy in the coming months. But Wednesday night's 132-129 loss to the Cavs offered another reminder that for all the stability and accomplishments Raptors coach Dwane Casey and his team have earned throughout this season, they still have to contend with the one player who has tortured them for years: LeBron James.
James scored 35 points, dished out 17 assists and grabbed seven rebounds on Wednesday, repeatedly making big plays when the Cavs needed them most, as he has done so many times to break the Raptors' spirit.
"Disgraceful display of defense by us," Raptors guard Kyle Lowry said. "We've got to be better than that."
James' 17 assists marked the sixth time he has had 15 or more in a game this season, which is a career high, according to ESPN Stats & Information research.
In a scene all too familiar to the Raptors and their fans, James spearheaded a huge Cavs comeback in the second half after his team gave up a season-high 79 points in the first half. James hit crucial shots and made the biggest pass of the night, kicking it out to Kevin Love for a clutch 3-pointer with 27.5 seconds left that gave the Cavs a four-point lead they wouldn't relinquish.
"You can't give him 17 assists and also give him 35 points," Casey said. "You're not going to stop everything, especially with a great player like him. We understand what the game plan was, and we've got to make sure we don't give him both."
Casey was hopeful that younger players such as Jakob Poeltl and Pascal Siakam would learn from the experience of playing against James and apply that to potential games in the future, but James' ability to take over is going to hover over the Raptors' collective psyche until they find a way to beat him in the playoffs. Lowry seemed frustrated when asked about another quintessential James performance.
"He played well tonight," Lowry said, not wanting to give the Raptors' nemesis too much credit. "He had a good game."
Love finished with 22 points and 12 rebounds, and point guard George Hill had his best game with the Cavaliers, going 10-for-11 from the field for 22 points. The Cavs finished with six players in double figures, including all five starters. Lowry led the Raptors with 24 points.
Before the game, Cavs interim head coach Larry Drew downplayed the significance of the game against the Eastern Conference's top team, in large part because of the fact that the Cavs still are playing without Larry Nance Jr. (hamstring), Rodney Hood (back), Cedi Osman (hip) and Tristan Thompson (ankle). Veteran sharpshooter Kyle Korver also missed Wednesday's game after his brother's death.
On the other end of the hallway inside Quicken Loans Arena, Casey acknowledged how important games against playoff teams are to his group and believed the Raptors could benefit from the experience of another high-intensity affair against the Cavs. If the Raptors are intent on taking another step in their development this season, they know they have to find some way to beat James and the Cavs when the stage is the brightest.
"They're still a helluva team," Raptors All-Star swingman DeMar DeRozan said. "You can't take nothing away from them. They're still a top team in our conference ... you can't overlook them or under[rate] them no type of way, no matter what type of changes they make."
On Wednesday, the Raptors left with the same sour taste in their mouths and the same ringing in their ears after it was over: the sound of thousands of Cavs fans chanting "MVP! MVP!" after another dominant James performance.