CLEVELAND — If only for one night, and perhaps for the final time, LeBron James brought a playoff atmosphere back to Northeast Ohio.
While James, wearing purple and gold for the first time inside Quicken Loans Arena, was the enemy once again, this time had a much different feel. His Los Angeles Lakers defeated the Cleveland Cavaliers 109-105 on a night that felt more like a celebration then a send-off.
James received a mostly standing ovation during player introductions and later a video tribute that touched on his on-court achievements as well as his charity and community work. He acknowledged the crowd both times, a far cry from his return as a member of the Miami Heat eight years ago.
"We've all grown from that moment," James said. "Those last four years, those championship runs we were making. That was my salute to them."
While James agreed to sign with the Lakers on July 1, his departure from the Cavs seemed destined even before that. As Cleveland's 2016 championship team slowly began to fall apart via free agency and trade, the group's latest run to the Finals in June ended in an embarrassing sweep at the hands of the Golden State Warriors. The slim hope he would return was still there, but people around Northeast Ohio were slowly starting to accept that James' latest tenure would once again be coming to an end.
"To be perfectly honest, when he did make the decision, I wasn't completely shocked," head coach Larry Drew, then the associate head coach under Tyronn Lue, told Bleacher Report. "I know everyone was hoping that he would return. I didn't feel there was anything we could have done. That was just a decision that a player makes when he's in that part of his career. He's going to make the right decision for himself, his family and his career, and that's what he did."
A quick poll of the Cavaliers locker room revealed no ill feelings toward James or his departure that has turned an Eastern Conference champion for four consecutive years into an NBA-worst 2-14 this season. Kevin Love, the new face of the Cavaliers despite currently being sidelined following toe surgery, sought out James before the game outside the Lakers locker room. Channing Frye and Larry Nance Jr. left the Cavs bench to dap up James before tipoff, and Tristan Thompson shared his old trademark handshake with the four-time MVP.
"I wasn't surprised; I was happy," Thompson told B/R on James' signing with the Lakers. "That's my brother. I wasn't surprised, just happy for him.
"He gave so much to this organization. He gave a lot to Miami. I think for him, he wanted to do what made him happy. I don't think it was so much the team per se—it might have been bits and pieces. For me personally, I laid it all on the line. At this point in his career, he deserved to make himself happy and his family happy, and they felt like that was playing for the Lakers. He's a guy that likes to challenge himself, and I think it's a great challenge for him. It's part of this great book he's going to write when he's all said and done, so it was fun."
Now with JR Smith no longer with the team, few faces remain from Cleveland's championship just two-and-a-half years ago. James is gone. Love is out until January. Frye is 35 and has appeared in only three games this season.
As expected as James' departure was, there's no doubt he was the glue able to hold all of the turnover together and still elevate the team into the Finals.
As one Cavs veteran remarked after the game, "Man, I miss playing on this stage."
Still, this was a night to celebrate James and all he had done for Cleveland. Perhaps no player was as grateful for his time with James as second-year forward Cedi Osman. As a rookie last season, Osman was taken under James' gigantic wing and thrown head first into the NBA fire.
"When he moved to L.A. of course I was upset," Osman told B/R. "But when I look back in my first year, I played in the NBA Finals. Played a lot of times with him on the court, practiced with him. It's all I could have asked."
Osman is now starting at small forward for Cleveland, a spot his mentor held for 10 years. His 21 points led the Cavs against James' Lakers and was the second-most overall in the game next to James' 32.
"I don't think anybody could have changed his mind except his family. He wanted what was best for his family, and that's what everybody wants," Osman said.
Osman still texts with James, and the pair famously worked out this summer in Los Angeles with Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. Osman says he hopes to get a call from James next offseason as well because he's "the best player in the world."
"Cedi is one of my favorite guys that I've played with, and that was only for a year," James said. "He has a love for the game. So my relationship has grown even stronger with Cedi, even though I've been on another coast."
On a night that was filled with so much hate eight years ago, not a poor word could be found between fans or ex-teammates. The appreciation for James and the championship he helped deliver is still fresh in the minds of those who suffered for so long without a title. For those who helped him win it, there's no ill will for him now leaving the franchise in ruins.
A playoff atmosphere. A celebration of what was instead of hatred for what now is. Growth was indeed shown in Cleveland by all.
"That's how it was supposed to be," Thompson said. "They did it the right way. I think everyone understood and was almost, like, ready. It was like, we appreciate this guy. He's given us so much; he's given us everything he's got. If he wants to move on and start another chapter in his life, we're all for it.
"You're still friends at the end of the day," Thompson adds. "I'm going to love you just like you're going to love me. I'm just going to love you from afar."
Greg Swartz covers the NBA for Bleacher Report.