CLEVELAND – Once Isaiah Thomas slipped on his jersey and headband those familiar, warm feelings washed over him.
His agonizing wait is almost over.
After seven months away, countless days of rehab and wonder if he would play again, Thomas was again on an NBA court Thursday night. And although he only took part in the pregame layup lane, it was more than enough.
"It was everything," he said. "I felt like a basketball player again."
Thomas dressed for the first time since coming to Cleveland in a trade and cheered from the bench on as LeBron James scored 34 points to lead the Cavaliers to their 12th straight home game, 115-112 over the Bulls.
Kevin Love added 27 to help the Cavs improve to 19-2 since Nov. 11.
But the biggest development for Cleveland was Thomas, who moved even closer to making his debut with the Cavs after injuring his right hip in the playoffs last May while with Boston. Earlier in the day, Thomas scrimmaged with the Canton Charge, the Cavs' G-League affiliate, before coming to Quicken Loans Arena. Thomas then put on his uniform, joined his teammates in their pregame prayer and took the floor for a warmup he won't forget.
"It just felt like I was a rookie again, like my first game," Thomas said. "I haven't been in an arena like that where you're warming up, you're with teammates, that's so new right now. I've been down since May so just being out there put a smile on my face."
Thomas won't play in Cleveland's next game – a Christmas Day marquee matchup with Golden State – but the Cavs won't be without the All-Star point guard much longer. Thomas said his workout with Canton went well, and he'll wait for Cleveland's medical staff to clear him to play in a game.
Thomas said facing the Warriors was never his goal.
"No, that was a target for my kids," he said. "So they mad, but I'm fine with it. I have no rhythm, so there is no way I can play in an actual game right now and be very effective like I'm used to being. Slowly that will come back and I'll get a feel for it. I also gotta get in some shape. That was probably the toughest part today, the going up and down constantly, being a little winded."
Dwyane Wade had three steals and two blocks in the fourth quarter for Cleveland, which improved to 3-0 against the Bulls this season.
With Cavs forward Jae Crowder guarding him closely, Denzel Valentine was short with a tying 3-pointer in the final second.
Rookie Lauri Markkanen scored 25 points, Valentine had 18 and Nikola Mirotic 15 for the Bulls, who lost for the first time since Dec. 6. The Bulls' win streak followed a 10-game losing skid.
"The last time we played in their gym, Cleveland absolutely drilled us," Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg said. "This shows the growth we've had as a team. We gave ourselves a chance to win, and our effort was tremendous, especially after sitting on a plane when we got here for 40 minutes with no stairs [due to mix up at airport gate]."
The Bulls battled back from a 10-point deficit early in the fourth and were within four at 111-107 when James, who has been so clutch in the fourth quarter all season, sank a fadeaway baseline jumper. The Bulls pulled to 113-112 on Valentine's layup before James made his two free throws, and Cleveland got the key defensive stop to end it.
Cavs coach Tyronn Lue missed the game with an undisclosed illness. Assistant coach Larry Drew filled in for Lue, who conducted his usual media session about 90 minutes before tip-off and was in Cleveland's locker room before the team announced he was sick.
"I could see that he wasn't feeling 100 percent," Drew said. "I knew there was a chance he may not be available tonight. Right as we met with the team, that's when I got word that he would not be available tonight."
Cavs starting guard J.R. Smith was a late scratch with a sore left knee. Channing Frye started and Drew juggled his lineup and rotation.
Smith's injury is not believed to be serious, but Drew didn't know if he would be available to play the Warriors.
Bulls: Bulls: Guards Zach LaVine (left knee) and Cameron Payne (right foot) have yet to play this season and remain out. ... Dropped to 3-13 on the road. ... Valentine, who has stepped up his game lately, made three consecutive 3-pointers early in the third. ... The Bulls attempted only one free throw in the first half.
Cavaliers: Cleveland has made at least 10 3-pointers in a franchise-record 22 straight games. ... James became the first player to appear in 800 games for Cleveland. ... Smith's knee flared up following the morning shootaround and he was kept out as a precaution. ... Guard Derrick Rose still isn't ready to return to the floor after being sidelined with an ankle injury that had him evaluating his future. Lue said Rose is doing some light workouts, but "nothing too fast right now as far as on the court. But his spirits are great, great having him back. Just the most important part, just getting him back healthy."
Bulls: Continue three-game trip at Boston on Saturday. The Bulls beat the Celtics, 108-85, at home on Dec. 11.
Cavaliers: For the third year in a row, they'll play the Warriors on Christmas in a rematch of the past three Finals.