CLEVELAND — LeBron James sprinted out of the tunnel at Quicken Loans Arena only minutes before Wednesday night's scheduled 8 p.m. ET tipoff. Fans donning James jerseys stood and cheered as the four-time MVP flowed right into warmups with his Laker teammates.
As Cavs coach Larry Drew put it before the game, "We recognize this is a big night for the city of Cleveland because a hero has come back."
James' image is inescapable at the Q. As the doors shut inside the media elevator, you see him hugging Kevin Love after the Cavs ended Cleveland's 52-year professional sports title drought with a comeback for the ages against the mighty Warriors. Head to section 103, and his image is plastered on the wall. Walk toward the visiting locker room, and there he is right next to Mo Williams.
"The Kid from Akron" left an indelible mark on a franchise and a region over 11 NBA seasons. It was only right James received a standing ovation during the starting lineups and a classy tribute video early in the first quarter.
"I appreciate these fans just as much as they appreciate me," James said. "Every single night we stepped out on the floor, they always showed their appreciation to not only myself but for my teammates for those 11 years, especially those last four years, those championship runs that we were making."
That video was also a turning point. The night quickly transitioned from "LeBron's Triumphant Return" to, well, a normal NBA game. A sellout crowd yelled less and less for James' buckets, realizing this Cavs team had a chance to win.
Cleveland held a 99-91 advantage over Los Angeles with less than five minutes to go in the fourth quarter. Then James did what he had done so many times before on that floor.
Kickout pass to Kyle Kuzma for a 3-pointer. Five-point deficit. Drive and draw a foul. Three-point deficit. Stepback 3-pointer from the left wing. Tie game. Drive and draw another foul. Two-point lead. James took over and flipped the scoreboard from down eight to ahead by two in just over two minutes of game time, finishing with 32 points, 14 rebounds and and seven assists in a thrilling 109-105 win.
"He's one of the best closers our game's ever seen," Lakers head coach Luke Walton said. "With him kind of anchoring that attack on that end of the floor, it's obviously something that any coach would love to have."
The late-game heroics certainly didn't surprise anyone in attendance, but they did serve as a reminder of what's left for the Cavs with James no longer wearing the wine and gold.
Love could be out until the calendar flips to 2019 with a foot injury. George Hill is still recovering from a shoulder injury. J.R. Smith is no longer with the team as the front office searches for a trade. The Cavs are hoping 2018 first-round pick Collin Sexton becomes a star, but there have already been questions about his development.
Prior to Wednesday's loss, which dropped Cleveland to 2-14 overall, Drew said he is "not coaching to lose" and "never will do that." But it's clear the losses will continue to pile up, regardless of how often the word "tanking" is uttered. LeBron was the system, and without him as the focal point, the Cavs are searching for a new identity.
"Anytime you've got a group of guys that you've spent so much time with both on and off the floor, and they're going through what they're going through right now, you definitely feel for that," James said. "Champions over there — guys who have been to the Finals, lot of guys who have worked their tails off to get to where they are in their careers.
"You never want to see your friends be in the situation that they're in. But as professionals, they're still giving all they got as they showed tonight."
Thousands of fans pushed their Cavs to the brink of victory. Sexton said they'd never had that type of crowd before and the screams "kept getting us rolling." In the end, though, these are the games young, rebuilding teams lose — because the Lakers had LeBron, and the Cavs didn't.
In his 2014 letter telling the basketball world his plans to return to Cleveland, James said, "In Northeast Ohio, nothing is given. Everything is earned. You work for what you have."
The fans gave him all the appreciation he could want because he earned it with the best stretch in franchise history and an improbable championship run in 2016.
And now, with LeBron heading back to LA, the Cavs have a lot of work to do.