CLEVELAND — Zydrunas Ilgauskas won’t ever forget it, but he’s also glad it’s over.
The 34-year-old was nervous, emotional and grateful Sunday afternoon in his first game back at Quicken Loans Arena, where the Cavaliers did just enough to beat the extremely shorthanded and not very good Sacramento Kings, 97-90.
“I haven’t been nervous before a basketball game in a long time,” Ilgauskas said. “Today I was.”
Ilgauskas, traded to Washington on Feb. 17, then bought out of his contract by the Wizards and re-signed by Cleveland on Tuesday, checked into the game with 4:02 left in the first quarter.
He received a standing ovation, with most of the 20,562 fans in attendance waving the “Z” placards that were handed out at the gate.
“It was emotional the whole day,” said Ilgauskas, who finished with four points on 2-of-5 shooting, six rebounds and three blocks in 23 minutes. “I thought it was awesome. It was something I’ll remember.”
The Cavaliers paid tribute to their franchise leader in games played, rebounds and blocked shots all afternoon.
During one timeout, a 1999 interview was played that showed a 23-year-old Ilgauskas, who now sports a shaved dome, with a full head of hair. There was also an old highlight of the 7-foot-3 center leading a fastbreak, taking the ball behind his back and finishing with a dunk.
“It was the second most anticipated comeback besides when (Michael) Jordan retired,” said LeBron James, who led the Cavaliers with 34 points, seven rebounds and eight assists. “These fans and ‘Z’ have something they cherish in one another.”
After picking up a foul soon after entering the game, Ilgauskas blocked a Carl Landry shot with 2:36 to go in the first quarter, then missed one of his awkward-looking hook shots at the 1:11 mark. He got on the board with 0.3 seconds left in the period on a putback of a James miss.
Midway through the second period, Ilgauskas got his only other hoop of the day on his patented baseline turnaround from the left side of the key.
“He has a very high basketball IQ,” Antawn Jamison, the player acquired in the Ilgauskas trade, said after putting up 26 points and nine boards. “He knows how to play the game.”
Many fans and team employees wore Ilgauskas’ No. 11 jersey, while cupcakes with “Z” carved in the icing were available in the media dining area.
What Ilgauskas really ate up, though, was the opportunity to resume his relationship with the fans.
“People appreciate what I’ve done,” he said. “I appreciate what they’ve done.”
The low-key Ilgauskas, however, was equally glad the day was over, which will allow him to focus all his energy on helping the Cavaliers attempt to win their first NBA championship.
“We’ve got a good team here,” he said. “That obviously guarantees us nothing, but I’ve always thought if you knocked on the door long enough, eventually someone was going to open it. We’ve been knocking on it for a while and come up short a couple of times, but something feels special about this year.”
Outside of Ilgauskas’ return and great individual efforts by James and Jamison, who topped 17,000 points for his career, there weren’t a whole lot of positive performances by Cleveland players.
As a result, the Cavaliers (58-16) allowed the Kings (24-50), who had just nine healthy players and lost one of those in the first quarter, to hang around until the bitter end.
Sacramento’s best player, Tyreke Evans, was out with a concussion, but the Kings got 21 points off the bench from Andres Nocioni, 16 points and 14 rebounds from center Jason Thompson, who played all 48 minutes, and the first triple-double of point guard Beno Udrih’s career (18 points, career-high 10 rebounds, 15 assists).
Anderson Varejao sat out for Cleveland with a hamstring injury, while point guard Mo Williams played 35 minutes, didn’t do much offensively and couldn’t stop Udrih all day.
Williams did have seven assists, but he also had four turnovers and just five points. In his last three games, which coincide with Ilgauskas’ return, the point guard has had scoring totals of eight, six and five while shooting 7-of-23 from the field, including 1-of-10 on 3-pointers.
“I’m not worried about Mo,” Cleveland coach Mike Brown said. “He definitely knows how to put the ball in the basket.”
So does James, who had 23 of his points after halftime, including 16 in the third period. The 25-year-old had a number of possessions where he held the ball way too long and ended up taking a horrible shot, but on more than one occasion, he made it.
The Kings were within one with 7:40 to go when James drove hard, probably got away with an offensive foul and scored. The next time down, he held the ball in one spot for about 15 seconds, then hit a fadeaway jumper off one foot.
James capped things for Cleveland with a 3-point bomb that beat the shot clock with 2:02 to play. It was the last point scored by either team, as the Cavaliers held the Kings to 14 points and 4-of-19 shooting in the fourth period.
- The Cavaliers finished 23-7 against the Western Conference this season and are 49-11 over the past two seasons, both league bests. They finished 10-0 against the Pacific Division this season, becoming the first team to go undefeated against that division since it was formed in 1970-71 (other than the 1998-99 lockout-shortened campaign).
- The Cavaliers have won 28 straight games against teams with losing records and are 33-3 against sub-.500 clubs for the season.
- At 26-12, Cleveland needs one road victory to set a franchise record for wins in a season. The Cavaliers were 26-15 on the road last season.
- Jamison now has 17,009 career points, which ranks 12th among active players. Those ahead of him are Shaquille O’Neal, Kevin Garnett, Michael Finley, Kobe Bryant, Ray Allen, Tim Duncan, Allen Iverson, Dirk Nowitzki, Paul Pierce, Vince Carter and Tracy McGrady.
- Who: Cleveland vs. Milwaukee
- When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.
- Where: The Q
- TV/radio: FS Ohio; WEOL 930-AM, WTAM 1100-AM
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org.