CLEVELAND — For one night, losing LeBron didn’t hurt so bad.
After nearly four months of emptiness, anger and worry, the Cleveland Cavaliers returned to the floor and realized they can still win.
Maybe they’re going to be OK after all.
Playing their first game in seven years without LeBron James, the Cavaliers stunned the Boston Celtics 95-87 in their season opener Wednesday night, a win that gave heartbroken Cleveland fans reason to believe that life will be fine minus the two-time MVP.
“This was for the city,” forward Antawn Jamison said. “It was for the fans to let them know the Cavs will survive and this is a place where you can still watch good basketball. And most of all, you can watch a team that wins.”
J.J. Hickson scored 21 points, Daniel Gibson added 16 — all in the second half — and the Cavaliers made several big, clutch plays in the closing minutes to hold off the Celtics, who defeated James and the Miami Heat on Tuesday night.
Rajon Rondo scored 18, Paul Pierce 13, Ray Allen 12 and Kevin Garnett had 15 rebounds for Boston, which led by 11 points in the third quarter but shot only 6 of 16 and was outscored 27-14 in the fourth.
“We took them a little bit too lightly,” said Shaquille O’Neal, who spent last season with Cleveland.
Gibson, who missed his first eight shots, made four free throws in the final 17.2 seconds for Cleveland, dealt a devastating blow in July when James announced he was leaving as a free agent. The loss rocked a city that hasn’t celebrated a pro sports championship since 1964 and triggered predictions the Cavaliers would slide back among the NBA’s bottom dwellers.
Not just yet.
“Guys in this locker room believe,” said Jamison, who joined the Cavs last season thinking he could win a title with James. “We’ve been listening to what people are predicting for us. We’re going to let our game do the talking. It’s probably going to take a month or so for people to realize, ‘Hey, this is a team that can win and compete for the playoffs.’”
As the final seconds ticked off, Cleveland fans jumped for joy, owner Dan Gilbert pumped his fist and hugged those sitting near him, first-year coach Byron Scott smiled and confetti fell from the ceiling of Quicken Loans Arena like it did so many times while James was around.
All night, the Q quaked.
“It felt like Game 7 of the finals,” said Cavs guard Ramon Sessions, who scored 14 and started in place of injured Mo Williams. “I’ve never been to the finals, but that was the type of atmosphere here.”
With the score tied 86-all, Cleveland’s Anthony Parker drilled a 3-pointer with one tick left on the 24-second shot clock. Boston got a tip-in from Glen Davis, and during a timeout, the officials reviewed Parker’s shot and determined it was in fact a 3.
Celtics coach Doc Rivers disagreed, shaking his head and saying “No way.” Rivers didn’t think Parker got the shot off in time, and it did appear to take him several seconds to gather himself and shoot.
“That was the longest second in NBA history,” Rivers cracked. “I wasn’t going to argue. Somebody didn’t push that button quick enough.”
Scott wasn’t complaining.
“We’re at home,” he joked. “It’s supposed to be a long second.”
The Cavs played without Williams, still working his way back from a groin injury before camp training camp opened.
Things have changed dramatically since the teams met in the playoffs last season. James is with Miami; former Cavs coach Mike Brown is looking for work after being fired; O’Neal and Delonte West swapped wine-and-gold jerseys for green-and-white ones, and Scott returned to coaching after a spin as a TV analyst.
There wasn’t a trace of James inside an arena he helped put on the NBA’s map. Earlier in the day on a building outside, a giant black-and-white banner depicting Cleveland’s skyline was hung in the exact spot where James’ iconic image once towered.
No. 23 is gone, but hardly forgotten. He’ll be back on Dec. 2, and Cleveland is waiting.
While walking around the city, Rivers received congratulatory handshakes from Cavs fans who thanked him for beating James.
“I got lots of them,” Rivers said, laughing. “I thought it was pretty funny.”
Afterward, Rivers felt even more love.
“We’re the most popular team in Cleveland right now, beating Miami and losing to the Cavs,” said Rivers, who praised the Cavs. “That’s what the Cleveland fans want to see. This is blue-collar town. This team will fit them very well.”
Before the game, Gilbert said he did not regret criticizing James in the hours after the superstar announced he was leaving as a free agent. Gilbert sent a scathing letter to Cleveland fans, calling James “narcissistic” and “cowardly.” Later that night, James told The Associated Press that he felt James quit on the Cavs in Game 5 last season against the Celtics.
Gilbert didn’t back off from any of his remarks, and believes the Cavs remain a playoff team without James.
“Not a lot of teams have the quality of Antawn Jamison and Daniel Gibson coming off the bench,” he said. “When you think of it in that sense, and having the kind of quality coach we have, anything can happen.”
It already has.
NOTES: Like many, O’Neal was shocked when James said he was joining the Heat. “I was baby-sitting at the time,” he said. “I thought it was a joke. I thought he was coming back, but I got an e-mail saying he went to Miami and I was like, ‘stop lying.’” … Aerosmith front man, longtime Celtics fan and new “American Idol” judge Steve Tyler sat courtside with the band’s drummer Joey Kramer, who was misidentified as bassist Tom Hamilton on the arena’s scoreboard. … Varejao mimicked one of James’ signature chase-down blocks by running down Allen from behind and swatting his layup into the stands. … The Cavs have won nine of 10 over Boston at home in the past five seasons.