CLEVELAND - As the old saying goes, if you play with fire, you're going to get burned.
Dwane Casey, who has used the phrase as a cautionary tale after lethargic starts of the recent past, came just short of saying 'I told you so' Tuesday evening.
His team had been getting away with it, far more often than any team should. Yes, they're a resilient bunch and that was the case again in Cleveland as they clawed back from a 21-point deficit - even taking a brief fourth-quarter lead - but it's been masking the underlying issue.
They're an open-faced sandwich, missing the top bun.
"You can't play in this league that way and expect to come back each and every night," Casey said after Toronto's 102-100 loss to the Cavaliers. "It's bit us more than we've won, it feels like."
"Until we fix that, among us, among ourselves, then it's going to be an uphill battle every night."
For the second time in three days, the Raptors trailed by nine after the first quarter, allowing another team with a losing record, also missing their best player, to shoot above 52 per cent to open the game.
The start was eerily similar to Sunday's, at home to Atlanta, lacking effort, focus and purpose on both ends of the floor. Even without injured point guard Kyrie Irving, Cleveland killed the visiting Raptors with speed and precision, exposing a reoccurring hole in their interior defence by darting into the paint at will.
The comeback was inevitable. It's what they do.
Down by 21 early in the third, Toronto staged a 21-9 run to close out the quarter. Kyle Lowry - running back and forth from the locker room all night, battling an upset stomach - scored half of his team-high 22 points in the frame.
Greivis Vasquez would give the Raptors their first lead since the opening minutes, draining a three-pointer midway through the fourth before reality set in.
"I think everybody's energy was low from having to come back," Lowry said.
From that moment on they hit just one of their final 10 shots and on the last possession, down only two, they failed to even get one off.
It was a play they had just run with success. Amir Johnson was looking for Lowry to turn the corner, but he was cut off. Instead, Vasquez took the handoff and, trying to spin right, towards the bucket, he lost his footing.
"It was me going to my weak hand and I lost my balance, stepped kind of weird," said Vasquez, who scored 16 points of Toronto's bench. "I turned the ball over. I'll take responsibility. I'm not going to run away. I'm a man."
A noble gesture but, as Casey pointed out, it's not the reason for the loss.
"That's not the game-decider," the Raptors' coach said. "The game was decided the way we approached the first quarter."
"It's easy to get up for OKC, it's easy to get up for Miami, it's easy to get up for Indiana but the teams that are not in the playoff picture, they are playing for something, too," he continued. "They're playing for pride, which is probably a little bit more dangerous than guys trying to save minutes and save themselves for the playoffs."
There's a lesson to be learned from this loss and it shouldn't take long to figure out whether or not it's been absorbed. The Raptors - now the East's fourth seed, leapfrogged by the Bulls with Tuesday's defeat - will travel to Boston in the second night of a back-to-back and first game of a home-and-home set with the Celtics, another scrappy team looking to play spoiler.
"We've got to get the mindset of being the hunter instead of the hunted because," Casey added. "That's how we got where we are, being a desperate team, a hungry team and not believing the press clippings or where we are in the standings."
Although Lowry would have preferred to celebrate his 28th birthday with a win, the Raptors' point guard recorded his 18th double-double with 10 assists to go along with his 22 points.
Lowry extended his career-high streak of 19 or more points to 10 games and also became the first Raptor to score 20-plus in eight straight since Chris Bosh did so in 2010.
Amir passes VC on blocks list
With his third-quarter swat on Spencer Hawes, Johnson recorded his 416th block as a member of the Raptors, passing Vince Carter for second on the team's all-time block shots list.
Johnson, who had 12 points and nine rebounds on Tuesday, still has a ways to go to catch Bosh, topping the franchise list with 600 blocks.
Patterson nearing a return
Patrick Patterson, who has missed 10 straight games with an ulnar collateral sprain in his right elbow, was reassessed on Monday and is headlong well, the team revealed before Tuesday's game in Cleveland.
Although he's been cleared for contact, there's still no timetable for his return to game action.
"It's a lot up to the medical staff and when they feel he can go," Casey said. "It's one of those things where if he gets hit in the wrong way it could be trouble for a lot longer so that's why they want to make sure it's well enough."
The Raptors fell just short of matching their largest comeback of the season. They last overcame a 21-point deficit in their home win over Dallas on Jan. 22.
Toronto hasn't had multiple wins in which they've trailed by 20 or more points in the same season since 2004-05.
"We've just got to understand what we're playing for," Vasquez said. "We've got a big one tomorrow [in Boston]. It's a must-win because we're actually playing for something. If you don't get up for that you've got to get your gas up. We've just got to be motivated, man. This is crunch time. This is important for us. Tomorrow's a must-win, no matter what. No excuses."