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JAMES FACES WEARING A MASK TO PROTECT FRACTURE

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 6-8, 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.

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