<
>

Cavs off till Monday; LeBron expected to play

CLEVELAND -- LeBron James has had happier birthdays. Healthier ones, for sure.

James spent his 20th at home, nursing a broken left cheekbone sustained when he ran into Houston center Dikembe Mutombo's elbow
during the Cavaliers' 98-87 loss to the Rockets on Wednesday night.

Once the swelling in his face goes down, James will be fitted with a protective mask that he'll have to wear during games until
the fracture is fully healed. The Cavaliers don't play again until
Monday at Charlotte, giving James time to rest.

Coach Paul Silas was relieved James' injury wasn't more serious
and remains hopeful that the first-place Cavaliers will have their
star player back soon.

"Your worst fears are that he's going to be out for a long
time," Silas said after Thursday's practice. "If they had to
operate it could have been four or five weeks. He'll have to get
adjusted to the mask, but at least he'll be able to play."

James' agent, Aaron Goodwin, wouldn't be surprised if James is
back in time to face the expansion Bobcats.

"Knowing LeBron, he'll play," Goodwin said. "That's all he
was mad about last night, that he couldn't play."

The Cavaliers were preparing themselves for much worse news
after seeing the reigning NBA Rookie of the Year crumble to the
floor late in the second quarter after being nailed accidentally by
Mutombo.

James was moving quickly across the middle of the foul lane
while trying to steal a pass from Tracy McGrady when his momentum
carried him into the 7-foot-2 center, whose sharp elbows have done
damage in the league for years. Mutombo's elbow caught James near
his left eye, dropping the 6-foot-8, 240-pounder.

He rolled onto his stomach and stayed face down for several
seconds while play continued and the sellout crowd in Gund Arena
fell silent.

James told Silas that he briefly lost consciousness.

He was helped off the floor and taken to the Cleveland Clinic,
where he was examined by two specialists. James underwent X-rays
and a CAT scan, which revealed the facial fracture below his left
eye.

"He's a very fortunate young man," Cavaliers trainer Max
Benton said. "In this case, this was the best of a worst
scenario."

Ironically, before the game Cleveland guard Eric Snow had
reminded James to watch out for Mutombo's omnipresent elbows.

"He has probably hit his teammates more than he hits
opponents," said Snow, who played with Mutombo in Philadelphia.
"It was a reaction play. There was never a chance for LeBron to
protect himself."

There wasn't time for Mutombo to do anything to soften the blow.

"I never saw him," he said. "I was just reaching for the
ball. Tracy drove and I was going to get it. The next thing I know
-- boom. He was laying on the floor. I haven't had an accident like
that for awhile. But it happens sometimes."

Although Mutombo has a history of swinging and connecting with
his elbows, Silas said it was clear that he didn't hit James
intentionally.

"LeBron was going for the ball and so was he," Silas said.
"It was a total accident."

While James was at the hospital, the Cavaliers made a nice
comeback against the Rockets but faltered down the stretch when
they had no one to match McGrady, who scored 12 of his 34 points in
the fourth quarter.

James, who is averaging 24.4 points, 7.0 rebounds and 7.2
assists in his second pro season, could have made a difference.
Silas is thankful that James will return to the floor sooner than
later.

Asked if he was somewhat relieved, Silas said, "Somewhat? Man,
I'm so happy. That's the best present I could have received. He
leads the charge for us and without him it was going to be tougher.
It's a relief for us all."

James will be the league's newest masked man -- and Cleveland's
latest.

Last season, Detroit guard Rip Hamilton wore a custom-made mask
to protect a nose broken twice and the plastic shield proved to be
lucky as the Pistons won the NBA title. Cavs center Zydrunas Ilgauskas grudgingly wore one to guard his nose, but never warmed up to it and occasionally flung it in frustration.

"During practice it took a lot of abuse," he said. "But those
things are sturdy, you're not going to break them. You can throw
them and do anything you want."

Maybe even sell them?

At the Cavs' team shop, fans can buy LeBron clocks, LeBron
pillow cases, LeBron bobbleheads and LeBron T-shirts, jerseys and
countless other LeBron-related items. Silas was asked if a LeBron
face mask could be on the shelves next.

"It shouldn't be long," Silas said. "I'm sure they'll find a
way to market that thing."