CHICAGO - With a recharged offense, one that departed from an isolation-heavy attack and embraced a more free-wheeling, three-point shooting friendly approach, the Toronto Raptors have become legitimate title contenders this season.
With a 53-18 record entering Thursday's game in Cleveland, the Raptors were No.1 in the Eastern Conference while their offense (points per game scored) and defense (points per game allowed) were ranked third and fourth in the NBA, respectively.
True to form, the Raptors stormed the Quicken Loans Arena in Cleveland and nearly unhinged the doors with a blistering 79-point halftime explosion that buried the badly wounded Cavaliers under the rubble of a 15-point deficit.
Toronto looked like the heir apparent to the Eastern Conference kingdom that had been ruled ruthlessly by King James and his minions since 2015. And it appeared that the Raptors were hungrier and more enthusiastic than the battle-weary Cavs.
But what would have been a huge statement game for the Raptors quickly turned into a nightmare that resurrected the ghosts of their playoffs past. On the wings of LeBron James' resolve, Cleveland rallied in the second half to pull off a heart-stopping 132-129 victory.
Instead of validating their transformation and tilting their confidence level northbound, the Raptors only collected seeds of doubt, wondering whether they could actually conquer the bullies who dusted them off, 4-2, in the 2016 East Finals and swept them in the second round of the playoffs last year.
In fairness to Toronto, their duel against Cleveland was the second game of a back-to-back and their third in four nights. It was also their 10th contest in 16 days. After torching Cleveland for 38 points in the first quarter and 41 in the second stanza, the Raptors may have simply run out of gas.
The might of the Raptors was on full display as their All-Star backcourt of Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan combined for 45 points, 12 assists and seven rebounds while their seven-foot center Jonas Valanciunas towered with 15 points and 8 boards.
Led by Jakob Poeltl, a bruising seven-foot big with a nasty appetite for rebounds, and the crafty Fred VanVleet, the Raptors' bench overwhelmed the Cavaliers reserves, 58-23.
Toronto made 47 of 87 field goals (54 percent), sank 15 of 34 threes (44.1 percent) and converted 20 of 23 free throws (87.1 percent). They also outrebounded the Cavaliers, 33-32, had more assists, 32-28, and committed two less turnovers, 7-9.
In almost any other game, these stats typically result in a victory. Winners in 19 of their previous 21 games, including a nine-game road winning streak, Toronto held most of the cards in the game.
But Cleveland had the ace of spades - LeBron James.
'The King' had 35 points, 17 rebounds and seven assists with no turnovers. It was a royal performance that may have flushed Toronto's hopes of avenging their playoffs defeats at the hands of the Cavaliers the last two Mays.
After averaging a triple-double in the month of February, LeBron is plowing through March with impunity. He has broken so many NBA records this season the Ohio State University must be calling, begging him to teach history instead of just making them.
Even more demoralizing was the fact that Toronto couldn't keep a 15-point lead against a Cavs team that fielded a lineup without Tristan Thompson (sprained right ankle), Rodney Hood (lower back), Larry Nance Jr (right hamstring), Cedi Osman (left hip flexor), Kyle Korver (death in the family) and head coach Tyronn Lue (illness).
By no means did this setback assure that the Raptors will fall to the Cavaliers again if their paths cross this postseason. By the same token, this was a huge mental knockdown that couldn't be dismissed as just another regular season game.
Make no mistake, the Raptors are an excellent team. They swish 11.8 triples per game and score 112.5 points a contest. They have depth and talent. Their offense has creativity and imagination and their defense can be rough and edgy.
And they are exceptionally well-coached by Dwane Casey, a basketball lifer who is as tenacious as he is selfless.
DeRozan and Co. will create a lot of turbulence for opposing teams in the playoffs, but they cannot stop LeBron's flight to another NBA Finals landing.
KILLING TIME. LeBron James is high maintenance, after all.
In an Outside The Lines report on ESPN, Brian Windhorst revealed that LeBron spends between $1 million to $1.5 million a year to keep himself in shape.
Personal trainer Mike Mancias and biochemist Donnie Raimon, a Navy SEAL for 15 years, are the men behind the machine. Their sole mission is to make sure James is in elite shape during games and that he recovers nicely after.
Mancias and Raimon work round-the-clock and go wherever the King goes, including family vacations. According to Windhorst, LeBron's shoe contract allows his trainers to travel with him in the Nike private jet during promotional trips to China.
Father time, as they say, is undefeated and it waits for no one. But with 33 years and 82 days on his life's odometer, LeBron has softened the blows of aging by adhering to a healthy diet and religiously following a stern workout regimen that includes nitrogen treatments.
The commitment to win, the desire to stay on top, and the willingness to do the things required to achieved those goals is what makes LeBron James the best player in basketball over the last decade.