LeBron James eyes Thursday return

MIAMI -- LeBron James participated in his first practice Tuesday since breaking his nose last week and hopes to return for the Miami Heat's game Thursday against the New York Knicks.

James was off limits during the Heat's full-contact portions of scrimmage work, so he did not wear a protective mask. But he said he's been fitted for one and will wear it in games the next few weeks.

"Every day is better," James said. "It's getting better, but I haven't been hit on it, either. It's too soon, but I think I should be fine enough to go on Thursday. It's only Tuesday, so we've got a lot of time."

James sustained the injury midway through the fourth quarter of Thursday's victory against Oklahoma City when he was struck in the face by Serge Ibaka while driving for a dunk. He left the game and did not return. An X-ray confirmed the break after the Heat returned from their six-game trip Friday, and James had a corrective procedure.

He sat out of Sunday's home win against Chicago, just the second game he's missed this season (Miami won both). The plan is for James to test the protective mask during Wednesday's practice, and he will be evaluated afterward to determine his status for Thursday's game.

Having worn a mask earlier in his career to protect a broken cheekbone, James said he's familiar with the discomfort playing with the contraption on his face.

"It's a difficult challenge ... it feels like something, someone has a hand constantly in your face," James said. "It's like an added defender you don't want."

The injury comes with James in the midst of his most productive stretch of the season. He has shot 61.3 percent from the field and averaged 37 points, 9.5 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 3.3 steals in his past four games. The Heat have also won eight of their last nine and sit 1½ games behind Indiana for the best record in the Eastern Conference.

Teammates said Tuesday that James didn't seem to be too affected by the injury.

"He [looked] the same," Chris Bosh said. "He can break anything and he'll look the same. That's why he's LeBron. There was no mask today. So it'll be a surprise to everybody once we see it."

James was able to take part in some of the team's five-on-five offensive sets and defensive rotations. But he stepped aside during scrimmage work.

He said he's most affected by the injury in the mornings and late in the evenings when his nasal passage clogs. James also said he's not concerned about his nose being a potential target for defenders when he drives to the basket.

"When we go full-contact, it's like a game," James said of anticipating Wednesday's workout. "We go at it. We've got an alpha male team. It was noncontact for me, but it was contact for the rest of those guys. I'm not ready for contact just now."