TORONTO – LeBron James sat for a long time in his corner stall of the visitor’s locker room, his feet soaking in ice, his face masked in a scowl.
He didn’t need anyone or anything to tell him.
He took the box score, glanced at it, and ripped it to shreds.
Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. For the Raptors and Kyle Lowry in particular, that same piece of paper is worth framing.
For Lowry it tells the story of what may well be the greatest individual regular-season effort by a Raptors player in franchise history. It tells the story of him setting a career high for points in the most dramatic way possible.
For the Raptors it tells the story of an undermanned team – short a starter (DeMarre Carroll) due to injury and on this night almost without DeMar DeRozan due to a flu bug working its way through the team – that won a game that could define a season.
The details: Lowry scored 43 points while shooting 15-of-20 from the field, distributing nine assists and grabbing five rebounds. He only made two turnovers while snatching four steals.
"It was the best game I’ve ever seen him play," said Patrick Patterson, his teammate going back to their days with the Houston Rockets.
Oh yeah, the best part:
Lowry also watched the clock count down in a tie game, the crowd at the Air Canada Centre delirious. He calmly drifted to his left and drained a 23-footer that was never in doubt to win it with 3.8 seconds left, a result sealed when James missed a game-winning three at the buzzer.
"That’s what all-stars do," said James, of Lowry. "He had a hell of a game."
The win was as meaningful as a regular-season game can be at this stage of the year.
The Raptors improved to 39-18 and won the season series against the Cavaliers, 2-1, which may prove crucial now that they are just two games behind Cleveland in the race for the first seed in the Eastern Conference playoff race.
The Raptors have made a point of not getting too carried away with their successes, which keep coming in a season that is shaping up to be historic for a team that is shy on history.
They believe getting too carried away with their success a year ago cost them as they stumbled down the stretch and crumbled in the playoffs.
They weren’t going to make an exception for Friday night’s victory, even if it was a record-setting 10th straight home win and will be remembered for Lowry’s performance long after any of them are still playing.
"It was a good game and we enjoyed it," said Lowry, who was studiously if respectfully bland in his assessment of his career-best outing. "It was a matchup that we take one game at a time. It’s no measuring stick, it was just a game for us to get better … we will continue to grow, try to get better and take it game by game."
The Cavaliers didn’t see it as just another game. They came to Toronto looking for a test and got more than they could handle.
James rolled out of bed for the Cavaliers’ final matchup against the Raptors and was on point during his morning media availability: he knew the Raptors were riding a nine-game home winning streak.
Toronto’s own Tristan Thompson was up to speed on where Lowry and DeRozan ranked in NBA scoring for guards.
Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue didn’t try to ‘just another game’ it when he spoke before the meeting of the No. 1 and 2 teams in the East. Only 16 games into his tenure as head coach and he was looking for tests to gauge where his team is at on their quest to win a title.
"It’s a big game for us," Lue said. "It’s a chance to come on the road, come together and win a big game. Our guys are up for it."
They weren’t up enough. With 25 games left in the regular season they weren’t good enough and weren’t together enough to hold off a depleted Toronto lineup even with the benefit of a 14-point lead in the third quarter and a nine-point lead with five minutes left.
"Well, when you lose the way we lost, it’s mental mistake after mental mistake and those hurt more than anything, when you can play better mentally," said James, whose 25 points, eight rebounds and seven assists were offset by six turnovers and his missed buzzer-beater.
"People get so caught up in the physical side of the game, we lack mental right now and we’ve got to continue to get better with it."
They could learn from the Raptors and they could learn from Lowry. Toronto’s all-star point guard had his fingers, hands, heart – his everything – all over the game.
He had some help. Bismack Biyombo had 11 points on five-of-five shooting – all of his field goals coming in the second quarter as Toronto clawed its way back after being down 31-21 after the first quarter.
As the Raptors put together their 13-4 run late in the fourth quarter that resulted in a 95-95 tie on a pair of free throws by Lowry with 1:55 left, he could look at contributions by Terrence Ross (15 points) and even DeRozan, who scored a crucial basket after checking back in the game with five minutes left after missing most of the second half. It was his only field goal on 11 shots.
But in the end it was Lowry as he scored 16 points and added three assists in the fourth quarter, including the Raptors’ final six points on the night.
It will be known as the ‘Kyle Lowry Game’ in Raptors lore.
For LeBron James and the Cavaliers? It was a game to remember, but for all the wrong reasons. As he sat in his stall, his frustration showing, he muttered to no one and anyone: "That was a big game, man. That was a big game."
And Lowry and the Raptors? They won it, and while James might want to pretend it never happened, to tear that box score up and forget it, no one who saw it ever will.