CLEVELAND — LeBron James felt only love at home.
Making his first trip back to Cleveland since leaving for the second time as a free agent, James was welcomed like a hero on Wednesday night and rallied the Los Angeles Lakers to a 109-105 win over the Cavaliers, who played an inspired game against their former teammate but couldn’t stop him when it mattered most.
James finished with 32 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists. He also scored or assisted on 11 straight points as the Lakers overcame a 99-91 deficit in the fourth quarter.
The Cavs had a chance to tie late, but Kyle Korver missed a wide-open 3-pointer with 17 seconds left and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope made four free throws in the final 15 to seal it for Los Angeles.
From the moment he stepped back onto Quicken Loans Arena floor, his home court for 11 seasons, James was treated like a returning champion.
On the night before Thanksgiving, Cleveland said thanks to the Northeast Ohio son, the one who ended the city’s 52-year championship drought.
“We recognize the fact that certainly this is a big night for the city of Cleveland,” Cavs coach Larry Drew said before tipoff, “because a hero has come back.”
The Cavs, who came in an NBA-worst 2-13, didn’t roll over against James and played one of their best games this season. They seemed in control up 99-91 before James, as he did some many times for Cleveland, took over and scored or assisted on 11 straight points to give the Lakers the lead.
Jordan Clarkson had 20 points and Tristan Thompson 14 and 15 rebounds for Cleveland.
James was the last Lakers player introduced before the game, presented with a line familiar to all Cavs fans: “A 6-foot-8 forward from St. Vincent-St. Mary High School,” said arena announcer Sean Peebles. “Welcome home! LeBron James.”
The crowd roared and stood as James walked out and huddled with his new teammates, who must have wondered what was in store for them.
But unlike that ugly night of Dec. 2, 2010, when James returned with the Miami Heat and was subjected to non-stop booing, profane chants and a toxic, charged atmosphere of hatred unlike anything seen before or since, this was a night for celebration — and maybe more closure.
James has moved on.
With 8:09 left in the first quarter, James was saluted by the Cavs with a moving video tribute during a timeout. Images of James’ playing days with Cleveland — highlighted by the Cavs’ historic comeback to win the 2016 title — were shown along with video clips of his impact on the community, including his opening of the I Promise School in his hometown of Akron.
As the crowd stood and showed its affection toward James, “Thank You LeBron” was displayed in large letters on the arena’s giant scoreboard.
James appeared to be touched by the presentation. He bit his lower lip while walking back onto court and pointed to all corners of the building in appreciation, his chance to reconnect with a fan base he’ll always share a special, if not complicated, relationship.
Wearing a flat cap, long jacket and boots, James arrived at 5:46 p.m., entering the Q through a security entrance he’s passed through many times. He greeted two guards near the door with fist bumps before quickly walking past a large group of photographers to the visitors’ locker room.
Earlier in the day, James visited his I Promise School, a refurbished elementary for at-risk kids he founded and plans to expand.
James came back to Cleveland to face a team in disarray without him.
The Cavs have endured a season’s worth of issues in just over a month with the firing of coach Tyronn Lue, All-Star forward Kevin Love undergoing foot surgery and the latest drama — disillusioned forward J.R. Smith being excused so Cleveland can try to trade him.
Lakers: Coach Luke Walton is impressed with James’ knack for blocking out external distractions. “The great ones have that ability,” he said. “When they’re on the basketball court nothing else matters, other than what they’re trying to do. Their focus level seems to somehow get higher with the louder the noise gets. I don’t know how. I don’t know why.”
Cavaliers: Did not commit a turnover in the first half. … Starting G George Hill missed his sixth straight game with a sprained right shoulder sustained on Nov. 4. Hill has ramped up his on-court workouts in recent days and could be back soon. … Drew said he was unaware of Smith’s comments accusing the Cavs of “tanking.” Drew believes his team is playing hard, and promised to nothing but coach his team to win. “To coach to lose, I don’t understand that, I don’t know how to do that,” he said. “I don’t know how anybody can do that. That’s something I would never, ever do.”
Lakers: Host Utah on Friday.
Cavaliers: At Philadelphia on Friday.
By TOM WITHERS , Associated Press