TORONTO -- Two games after the Cleveland Cavaliers saw their 11-point second-half comeback fall short in Houston in part because of two errant free throws by LeBron James, it was the Cavs holding off a furious rally by the Toronto Raptors. Toronto tried to come back from being down 19 in the second half Wednesday, yet were thwarted in large part because of a 15-point fourth quarter by James.
On a personal level, the Cavs’ 120-112 win was redemptive for James.
“For me, I’m my biggest critic,” said James, referring to the way he chided himself on social media after the Rockets game, including posting a photo to Instagram of him looking himself in the mirror with a glum expression. “I’m tougher on me than anybody could ever be. I was kicking myself in the face and beating myself up after that game in Houston all the way to the next day.
“When I woke up the next day, I was refreshed, I was back in the gym. It’s another day, another opportunity for me to get better and it’s how you come back from those moments that define who you are as a player or as a person, period. I’ve been in situations like that. I man up to them. I understand that I’m the leader of this team. And when we win, we all win together. Sometimes when we lose, I’m taking all the blame. That’s who I am.”
Who he was on Wednesday was a guy that seemed to be following the same script as he did in Houston, starting the game 3-for-7 from the foul line including an 0-for-2 trip to the stripe after receiving a flagrant foul from Jonas Valanciunas late in the third quarter.
With the home crowd suddenly frenzied at the sight of The King falling on his own sword yet again, James turned things around.
“It’s winning time,” James said he told himself heading into the fourth quarter. “Be aggressive. It’s winning time.”
He went on to shoot 4-for-5 from the field and 5-for-6 from the line in the final stanza to finish with 29 points and tie his season high with 14 assists.
On a team level, it was a revealing result for James as he pondered how his guys were able to beat back the Raptors after they had made it a tie game as late as 5:51 remaining in the fourth.
“Every team makes a run,” James said. “You have to be able to withstand it and be resilient. And tonight was another moment for our team. And we need those going down the stretch run in the regular season. We need those moments where it’s good, it’s great, then it’s not so great. It’s how you come back from those moments, those adverse moments that define what team you are or you could be.”
First let’s talk about what the Cavs are. The win over Toronto nabbed them the season series 3-1 and pulled them within a virtual tie with the Raptors and the Chicago Bulls for the No. 2 seed in the Eastern Conference playoffs as all three teams sit 10.5 games back of Atlanta. (Cleveland has played two more games than the other two teams.)
Even David Blatt had to admit that pulling into a tie for second with 19 games remaining in the regular season was worth recognition, considering that his team was No. 6 in the conference before it blazed its current 20-4 run over its past 24 games.
Before tipoff Blatt was asked about the importance of beating the Raptors. He dismissed it with coachspeak, saying, “They’re all important. And we’re trying to play them that way.”
Afterward, he sang a different tune.
“You were right,” Blatt said. “Obviously this was a big bridge game for us tonight because we did [win] the series with Toronto and that could be a factor the way the East is shaping up.”
The Cavs will look for another major moment on the road Friday against the top-seeded Atlanta Hawks. It’s the site of perhaps the team’s lowest low this season: James unexpectedly sitting out on his 30th birthday while Kevin Love went out with back spasms as Cleveland looked as out of sorts as could be.
That seems like a distant memory, which is the same feeling James wants when he thinks back on his failure in Houston.
Why, James was asked, does he still get so bent out of a shape with a regular-season loss when he has legendary playoff performances and two championship rings to his credit by this point?
“It’s just who I am,” James said. “It’s just who I am.”
And who he is happens to be the key to everything that the Cavs can become.