Masked LeBron James fuels win

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MIAMI -- Leave it to LeBron James to make a fashion statement out of a broken nose.

Sporting a black, carbon-fiber mask to protect his broken nose, James returned to action after sitting out a week to lead the Miami Heat to Thursday's 108-82 victory against the New York Knicks.

James scored a game-high 31 points, but he also scored high marks with his teammates for his choice of face gear.

James' mask garnered more attention than his latest stellar performance on the court.

"I told him I'd expect nothing less from him -- fashion-forward, cutting-edge Renaissance man that LeBron is," Heat forward Shane Battier said of James' mask. "I thought it looked pretty sweet. I don't think that it will inspire people to go out there and break their nose. But if you're going to do it, it can look kind of cool. Only LeBron can make breaking your nose look cool."

James was forced to wear the mask after suffering the injury during a Feb. 20 win in Oklahoma City, where he was struck in the face midway through the fourth quarter by Thunder forward Serge Ibaka on a drive to the basket.

James missed Sunday's game home victory against Chicago, but spent time during the week privately sorting through a selection of masks designed by a local Miami manufacturer.

James initially told some of his teammates and the media that he would likely wear a clear fiberglass mask that is work by several other players in the league to protect facial injuries. But James emerged Thursday with a stunningly sleek design that was significantly more dynamic than the traditional-style mask than Knicks guard J.R. Smith wore Thursday to protect a fractured cheekbone.

"It went with the uniform," James said of his reason for going with the dark design to match the classic black uniforms the Heat wore for Thursday's game. "I knew we were wearing throwback uniforms. I was able to get a carbon fiber one, which is actually lighter than the one I had been wearing in practice. It came through at the last minute, so I went with it."

Smith wasn't exactly in the mood to compare mask designs after the struggling Knicks lost for the 10th time in their past 12 games.

"What did I think of it? It's a mask," Smith said after the game. "I'm sure he doesn't want to wear it."

James said he didn't seek league approval for the color and design of the mask before wearing it Thursday. A senior NBA spokesman confirmed Thursday night the league had no issues with the mask. The ordeal left James' teammates searching for creative ways to describe exactly what they saw.

"I think he played like Batman out there," center Chris Bosh said. "I think it really helped him out. He played great."

Bosh was then interrupted in the middle of his session with reporters by Heat forward Michael Beasley, whose locker was a few spots away.

"How you know what Batman plays like?" Beasley shouted toward Bosh. "How does he play?"

Bosh playfully shouted back at Beasley.

Third-year guard Norris Cole said James "swagged out" the mask.

While James' facial apparel garnered plenty of attention, it didn't prove to quite the distraction he anticipated it might be entering the game. James said he anticipated being hesitant at the start of the game as he adjusted to wearing a mask for the first time since he fractured his cheekbone in 2005.

But there were no signs of tentativeness in James' play early. He made seven of his first nine shots and would finish with his fourth consecutive game with at least 30 points.

James expects to wear the mask for at least a couple of more weeks, but acknowledged it will be difficult to match the element of surprise his new get-up brought to Thursday's game.

"I liked the look of it; it looked menacing," Heat coach Erik Spoelstra said. "As long as he was aggressive, that was the big key."

The mask design was the second surprise gimmick James pulled on his teammates in as many days. After Wednesday's practice, James brought WWE wrestling-style championship belts for Heat players to remind them entering the season's stretch run of their challenge of pursuing a third straight NBA title.

Still, playing in the mask did present some issues for James. He also said he absorb some contact to his face on drives to the basket without feeling much discomfort.

"A couple of times it was (a problem)," James said. "A couple of times, I kept seeing inside the mask sometimes before I could see a player. But for the most part, I was able to get into a good comfort zone and make some plays. And I just kind of tried to forget about it, besides maybe when it got hot a few times. I was happy with a couple of the timeouts when they came, and I was able to take it off."

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