Masked LeBron James fuels romp

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

Sporting a black carbon-fiber mask as protection, James returned to action Thursday night after sitting out a week and led the Miami Heat to a 108-82 win over the New York Knicks.

James had a game-high 31 points, but he also scored high marks with teammates for his choice of face gear. The mask garnered more attention than his latest stellar performance.

"I told him I'd expect nothing less from him -- fashion-forward, cutting-edge Renaissance man that LeBron is," Heat forward Shane Battier said. "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 had fun with the look on Twitter.

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

He missed the Heat's home victory Sunday against Chicago and 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 he likely would wear a clear fiberglass mask similar to ones worn by several other players in the league to protect facial injuries. But James emerged Thursday with a sleek design that was significantly more dynamic than the traditional-style mask Knicks guard J.R. Smith wore Thursday to protect a fractured cheekbone.

"It went with the uniform," he said of going with a dark design. "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 12 games.

"What did I think of it?" Smith said. "It's a mask. 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 that the league had no issue with the mask.

The mask left teammates searching for creative ways to describe 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 forward Michael Beasley, whose locker is a few spots away.

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

Bosh playfully shouted back at Beasley.

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

Although it garnered plenty of attention, the mask didn't prove to as distracting as he expected it to be entering the game. He said he anticipated being hesitant at the start 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 more weeks but acknowledged it will be difficult to match the element of surprise his new getup 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 out WWE wrestling-style championship belts for Heat players as reminders that they are entering the 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 absorbed 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, 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."