CLEVELAND -- The first look at the new-look Cavaliers -- with eight different players from last season's NBA Finals team -- took a backseat in Tuesday's season opener against the Boston Celtics to the Cavs' old faithful, LeBron James.
After missing four of Cleveland's five preseason games with a sprained left ankle that he hurt on the second day of training camp, James logged a game-high 41 minutes against the Celtics and put up 29 points, 16 rebounds, nine assists and two blocks in the Cavs' 102-99 win.
"For a guy who has been out for most of training camp and to come back and play those minutes that he played, hit the shots he did -- we lean on him," said Dwyane Wade, who had eight points on 3 for 10 shooting, three assists and four turnovers in his first official game with the Cavs. "We're going to depend on him, and this is why he's one of the greatest to do it. Not many people can do what he's done.
"We went to him down the stretch, and he did what LeBron does. Guys have to be ready to do what is asked when the time is. Like hitting that 3 for Kevin Love off the pass from him. That guy is incredible."
Love's 3 off James' pass with 46 seconds remaining put Cleveland up by four and capped a furious fourth quarter for James, as he finished out the game with 13 points, six rebounds and two assists in the final period while playing all 12 minutes.
"Even though he, I think, only played one game in the preseason, he still can pick up his game to a level so much even when he looks a little bit winded -- and he never does -- but he was able to make a huge play, made big plays all night and we're a little rusty all the way around," Love said, alluding to the Cavs' 18-point third quarter lead that turned into a four-point deficit in the fourth that Cleveland had to climb out of. "He was able to find not just me but a lot of guys tonight, and I found myself in the right spot, they went to double him and I knocked it down."
Cavs coach Tyronn Lue said he didn't know James was going to play until about two hours before tipoff, but Lue didn't put a minute restriction on him, figuring James would be tired and take himself out. That wasn't the case, of course, and James saved his best for last.
"You can sense it," Lue said. "He has a little look in his eyes like, 'Come to me. Play through me.' That's what we did, and he was able to deliver. He made a great pass to Kevin, hit a big 3, a couple baskets around the rim. That's what he does."
James also guarded Kyrie Irving on the Celtics' final possession, putting a hand in his face as Irving's potential game-tying 3 ended up as an air ball.
"I didn't want to commit the foul, and if he made it, he made it," said James, who shared a specialized handshake with Irving just moments after his final heave. "He's made so many of those tough shots right there, that's kind of one of his sweet spots, that right wing too. We played well, well enough to win, but obviously, we have a lot of room for improvement. Both teams do, so it's good to get one under the belt."
For James, improving means getting back into shape while still caring for his ankle. He told ESPN he went through a postgame workout on the VersaClimber to try to get his wind back up to snuff.
"Am I over the hump? I don't know," James said. "Tomorrow is the sign. I just played 40-plus [minutes]. I just did some extra conditioning, as well. I don't feel great about where my game is right now after having taken off three weeks, 3½ weeks. Had a setback with that. Have to try to work through it, so there's going to be a fine line how much rest I give my ankle but how much conditioning I still do. I don't know if I'm over the hump. Tomorrow is a big day for me."
For the Cavs, improving means trying to get all the new pieces to fit together. Jae Crowder had 11 points and five rebounds in his debut, but he shot just 3-for-10. Derrick Rose had 14 points and four rebounds but shot just 5-for-14. Jeff Green scored six points in 14 minutes off the bench but also picked up three fouls and was in the red when it came to plus-minus.
"We've got a long way to go," James said. "Our coaching staff, we've got so many players, so much talent that I hate to be, and I'm not, in their position. Who's on the floor, what time and that time and things of that nature, so you can have guys out of rhythm, in rhythm. Our coaching staff is going to do a great job of just trying to make sure guys are staying in the flow of things.
"Tonight was a test for all of us to try to figure it out. I didn't think I would sit out the whole preseason and play 41 [minutes], though, so I gotta go in there and talk to my head coach a little bit. But all in all, we got a win and it's good to get this thing back going."