CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) -- LeBron James didn't like the plastic mask
he wore to protect his broken left cheek. It was hot, uncomfortable
and not easy to get used to.
Not until Ira Newble fed him a pass that he slammed in for an
alley-oop dunk did James feel comfortable, and he scored 26 points
Monday night to lead the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 94-83 victory
over the Charlotte Bobcats.
After his dunk with 6:03 to play in the first quarter -- James'
first attempt of the game -- Newble pointed at him and yelled
"You're all right! You're all right!."
"I've got a lot of confidence in myself, I've got a lot of
confidence in my teammates and they come to me and look at me as a
leader," James said. "I can't afford to be out there timid. It
doesn't matter if I've got a mask on or if I don't. I've just got
to be aggressive."
James was given the mask Monday morning in Cleveland, then flew
to Charlotte to rejoin his team. He said before the game he
preferred not to wear the mask, which he needed after Houston
center Dikembe Mutombo elbowed him in the face last week.
Once he got used to it, he played as well as he usually does.
James shot 11-of-19 and added eight rebounds and six assists.
"What mask? Who?" coach Paul Silas joked. "He played a normal
game. I was happy he didn't seem to have any effects.
"LeBron just loves to play. He is very passionate about
basketball and only something extremely terrible could prevent him
Drew Gooden added 19 points and played terrific defense on
Charlotte rookie Emeka Okafor. Okafor opened the first quarter with
10 points and three rebounds, but finished with just 12 points and
six rebounds to snap his streak of consecutive double-doubles at 19
"I think his last game without a double-double was against us,
he was just coming out and doing what he wanted at will," Gooden
said. "So we put a body on him at all times. I took it as a
Charlotte native Jeff McInnis scored 13 points despite being
bothered all day by flu symptoms.
Kareem Rush scored 19 points to lead the Bobcats, who lost their
sixth straight game.
Charlotte coach Bernie Bickerstaff said the problems against
Cleveland started with Okafor, who was off all night.
"Emeka had a difficult time," Bickerstaff said. "He's
basically been the carrier. He couldn't do the things he normally
does, hold on to the ball, those kinds of things ... it just wasn't
happening for him."
It was happening for James, who took off in the second quarter,
scoring 13 of his points. The burst was punctuated when he stole
the ball from Jason Kapono near midcourt, then briefly lost it
before scrambling after it and converting it into a right-handed
Despite James' efforts, the Cavaliers couldn't pull away from
Charlotte and led just 54-52 at halftime. That changed at the start
of the second half when James scored two baskets in 25 seconds to
force the Bobcats to take a quick timeout.
The first, a long jumper, had Bickerstaff griping to his
assistants about James' speed. The second was a fast-break dunk
over most of the Bobcats.
The timeout didn't help, Cleveland scored three consecutive
baskets, and Bickerstaff was clearly disgusted when he used another
timeout following McInnis' putback of James' miss to make it 62-54.
But it wasn't Charlotte's defense that was the problem. It was
the offense, or lack thereof.
Charlotte didn't score for almost seven minutes, missing 14
shots during the span. The drought lasted until Kapono's jumper
with 4:44 to go in the third.
With their season officially over, there were at least five
Carolina Panthers spread out among the courtside seats. ... Okafor
won the NBA's rookie of the month award for December, the second
consecutive month he's earned it. ... The Cavaliers were 0-for-11
from 3-point range.