During a timeout in the first quarter Wednesday night, the Cleveland Cavaliers played a 90-second love letter to LeBron James.
It opened with highlights from the team’s 2016 championship run. It spent more time on James’ work in the community, ending with footage from the I Promise School, which his foundation helped open and has heavily financed.
The video ended with a black screen and white lettering that read, “THANK YOU LeBRON.”
That’s about when James looked up.
Until then, he’d been focused on a play being drawn up by Lakers coach Luke Walton during a timeout.
James pointed up at the crowd and walked back onto the court. He beat his chest in acknowledgment a few times before pointing again while Drake’s “Forever” played over the PA system.
The song serenaded James with the words: “Last name: Ever, first name: Greatest.”
“A hero has come back,” Cavaliers coach Larry Drew said before the game.
Until halftime, Cleveland treated him like it.
Then he became just another opponent.
James finished with 32 points, 11 in the fourth quarter, and the Lakers defeated the Cavaliers 109-105 in his first game at Quicken Loans Arena since signing with the Lakers last July. He added 14 rebounds and seven assists as the Lakers (10-7) won for the eighth time in 10 games.
James missed two free throws in the final two minutes. But it added only a bit of drama to an inevitable conclusion.
Lonzo Ball had one of his most aggressive offensive games of the season. He scored 15 points after failing to score last Saturday at Orlando and scoring two points Sunday at Miami. He also had seven rebounds and six assists.
Josh Hart had a career-high three blocked shots.
Cleveland was led by second-year forward Cedi Osman, who scored 21 points. Former Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson scored 20.
James spent the day with what meant most to him in Cleveland. He visited the I Promise School, surprising students first thing in the morning. He went back to his home in suburban Cleveland and took a nap. Then he went to Quicken Loans Arena, where fans cheered him whenever they had an opportunity.
“I was already thankful for that moment,” James said, “and to come here tonight and go out and hear the fans’ reception, 11 years playing here ... to be the best basketball player, the best role model, the best leader I could be both on and off the floor and lead by example for this franchise and they showed their appreciation and I really ... and not only for myself but for my friends and family that were at the game tonight it was a great moment.”
The public-address announcer introduced James during pregame introductions with the same flair that he would a member of the home team as deafening cheers filled the arena, nearly drowning out his voice.
James scored six of the Lakers’ first 10 points, but the Cavaliers (2-14) put up a fight. They committed no turnovers in the first half, becoming the first team this season to make it through a half without a turnover.
Late in the fourth quarter, Cleveland had committed only one turnover while the Lakers had 14, which turned into 15 Cavaliers points.
“I don’t think we started the game with the defensive intensity that we normally play with,” Walton said. “We have long athletes, especially our starting group. And we just didn’t do a good job of getting deflections.”
The Lakers forced Cleveland’s second turnover when Ball stole the ball from Larry Nance Jr. with 6:05 to play. He passed ahead to James, whose running dunk cut the Lakers’ deficit to five points.
An 11-0 run later gave the Lakers a three-point lead.
Osman made a three-point shot to end the Lakers’ run and tie the score, but the Cavaliers never led again.
Eight years ago, the first time James made his return to Cleveland after leaving in free agency, Quicken Loans Arena played Darth Vader’s theme music when James was introduced to the crowd and fans jeered him all game. They even chanted, “Akron hates you.”
On Wednesday, James was not a villain, even though his departure has left the Cavaliers to sink to the bottom of the NBA. On Wednesday he got everything he wanted.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli