TORONTO -- Weren't we just here? Doesn't it seem like only days, not weeks, ago when the Cleveland Cavaliers trotted up to Toronto with supposedly sunny skies on the horizon -- winners of 11 of 13 back in late November -- and the Raptors rained on their parade, leaving the Cavs' postgame locker room in disarray?
Fast-forward three months, and the Cavs came back to the Air Canada Centre on Friday, winners of 11 of their previous 14. And the result? The same: a 99-97 loss. The postgame scene? Similar. There was no players-only meeting like last time, but there was the familiar look of players huddling in small groups long after the locker room opened to the media, lamenting what went wrong to one another while their on-the-record comments were terse, but telling.
"When you lose the way we lost, just mental mistake after mental mistake, those hurt more than anything when you can play better mentally," LeBron James said. "People get so caught up in the physical thing. We lack mental right now. And we got to continue to get better with it."
The simpleton's explanation for Friday's failure would be to point to James shooting an air ball at the buzzer on his potential game winner over Cory Joseph. It's low-hanging fruit. You could go after James' career-low 27.6 shooting percentage from 3 this season, and double down on your disdain by also calling out Cavs coach Tyronn Lue's unoriginal play call for the final possession. An iso from the top of the key when you used two timeouts before the final inbounds?
It's an easy target. Just as it would be easy to mention that for the second time this week, James coughed up six turnovers in a loss (he committed the same number Monday in an ugly defeat to Detroit). James' 5-for-9 mark from the free throw line is ready for a piñata poke, too.
Sure, it's a loss that stings, especially because Lue veered from the don't-say-anything-noteworthy coachspeak handbook and admitted before the game, "I think it does matter," rather than pegging it as just another one out of 82. And it came on a day Cleveland saw its top buyout preference, Joe Johnson, spurn Northeast Ohio's hungry fan base for the sunny shores of South Beach.
However, had James' final 3-point try found nothing but net rather than nothing but air, what really changes for the Cavs? Sure, they would hold a four-game lead over Toronto for the top seed in the East and win the season series 2-1, rather than being up by only two with the tiebreaker in the Raptors' hands. But, as one player told ESPN.com after the game, a result like that would have merely been "fool's gold," like a fresh coat of paint over a cracked foundation.
The Cavs have problems. Sure, at 41-16 they are relative problems compared to the rest of the league, but they are problems nonetheless. And the time they have to correct them before the playoffs begin and every deficiency gets magnified to the nth degree is slipping through their fingers.
This isn't about one player, but how many more games can Cleveland get out of Kyrie Irving like the one he played Friday before they lose trust in what he's made of? Irving was a defensive liability against both Kyle Lowry, who was spectacular with 43 points, 9 assists and 4 steals, and against Joseph, the Toronto backup who drove past him with regularity. On the offensive end, Irving was equally uninspiring, scoring only 10 points on 4-for-11 shooting and dishing out only one assist. Yes, Cleveland is set up for James to be a point forward, but his job gets considerably harder when he is the only playmaker out there looking to set up his teammates. Irving's greatest strengths are his masterful ballhandling ability and creativity in the open court, but if he only uses them to call his own number, the Cavs become predictable.
The reason to bring up Irving's meager assist total is not because it helped cause Friday's loss, but because it's the same bad habit James tried to rid Irving of in the first couple of weeks they played together, purposefully standing in the corner in Portland early last season to show how bogged down things can get unless he used his talents to enhance, rather than ignore, his teammates.
Iman Shumpert also rediscovered a bad habit, making the same type of mental mistake he has been prone to make during his time in Cleveland by getting a technical foul in the fourth quarter that seemed to jump-start the Toronto crowd and help give the Raptors new life.
Neither performance is that big of a deal in a vacuum, but if the same mistakes occur over and over again, a team's growth is stunted. Don't think it's a coincidence that James described Lowry's night by saying, "that's what All-Stars do," on the same night Irving wasn't up to par. There was a message James was sending. Lue was so perplexed by how his team handled Lowry, he said, "Going forward, we got to get somebody that can guard him," in essence challenging not only Irving but also Matthew Dellavedova, who was on Lowry for most of the fourth quarter, when Lowry finished things off with 16 points on 5-for-5 shooting.
If the Cavs are going to get where they want to be at the end of the season, standing atop the NBA mountain lifting the Larry O'Brien Trophy, they must grow. They must improve.
There was incremental progress Friday -- seeing Kevin Love playing down the stretch at the 5 and hitting a clutch 3 was a positive; the fact that James was able to play the entire second half without a rest only proves that he really is feeling 10 times better than he was last season, as he recently claimed -- so it wasn’t all bad.
But there are seven weeks left in the regular season, and really only six when you factor in rest in the final days before the playoffs begin. It would seem like enough time to find the stride the Cavs have been desperately searching for.
Then again, plenty of time has passed since the last time the Cavs lost in Toronto. And the days keep slipping away.