WASHINGTON - Washington Wizards coach Eddie Jordan was likely hoping that the din of the Super Bowl yesterday would allow him to slip Jerry Stackhouse onto the roster with as little fanfare as possible.
James scored a career-high 38 points, in a variety of ways from a variety of court positions, propelling the Cavaliers to a 104-100 win over the Wizards at MCI Center.
The 6-foot-8 rookie opened the game with 14 points in the first quarter, then scored 19 in a brilliant third quarter, as he paced a 26-8 run that took Cleveland (18-29) from a five-point deficit to a 13-point lead.
"Anytime I am on the court, I feel comfortable," said James, the first overall pick in last June's NBA draft. "[Yesterday], I was feeling it. My teammates kept feeding me the ball, and I was able to get the shots I wanted."
The Wizards (14-32) welcomed back Stackhouse, their leading scorer last season, who had missed the entire 2003-04 season to date because of a buildup of tissue between his right knee and kneecap.
Stackhouse, who had not played since 15 minutes of action in last season's penultimate contest, against the New York Knicks, was hardly at his peak. He appeared not to have his usual lift, and he appeared winded at the end of his second stint in the first half.
"That was why I went out there, to see how rusty I would be," said Stackhouse, who had 13 points on 5-for-14 shooting. "I just have to continue. I started out the game pretty good. I felt comfortable on the shots early, but as the game wore on, I sort of lost my legs.
"It's just a process, and I know that going in and I know that for the rest of the season. Do I know exactly where I'm going to be next week or the week after? Two weeks ago, I wasn't here, where I'm at now. I'm happy to say that I am gradually getting better, and I'm going to get better while I'm playing."
Said Jordan: "We're going to have to take the bad with the good. The good's going to come, but it's not going to happen overnight. We just hope that he can work through it as fast as possible, so we can get on the winning track."
Stackhouse, who began practicing late last week, had been projected by some within the organization to return around Christmas.
But the 6-6 forward said he had planned to take his time with his rehabilitation. He said his return yesterday coincided with a favorable stretch of schedule in which the Wizards have some time off, and then the All-Star break.
James, who had four conventional three-point plays - three in the third quarter - was able to do whatever he wanted, drawing the ire of some Wizards. Jordan got a technical foul in the fourth quarter, when James was sent to the free-throw line after Stackhouse appeared to block his shot cleanly.
"He definitely got some bail-out calls," Wizards guard Juan Dixon said. "I thought on that play, he used his off arm, but Stack was able to get the blocked shot. He got a call to go his way, and they got a technical foul and they got three free throws. I think that hurt us a bit because we were on our way back."
Said Stackhouse: "[James] set the tone for those calls. Whenever you get in a rhythm, the referees start to notice that, too. You give guys who are in a rhythm the benefit of the doubt, and that's what happened. He's an extremely talented player, but I'd like to see him full strength and see really where he is."
The Wizards, who have dropped three of five in their current seven-game homestand, could use some of James' star power and Stackhouse's swagger and talent to break the sense of malaise that has enveloped the team.
"They [the Cavaliers] are a hard-working team," Jordan said. "They're tough, they're gritty, and we just didn't match it. We're trying to change a losing culture here, and it's not easy. We're taking baby steps. We're having setbacks in some regards, but we're going to keep plugging."
NOTES: Former Wizards general manager Wes Unseld, who underwent knee replacement surgery during the offseason, made his first appearance of the season. ... Washington forward Kwame Brown suffered an injury to his nose just before tip-off when he caught an inadvertent elbow from reserve forward Torraye Braggs. Brown said he had cartilage damage in his nose and did not know whether he would have to wear a protective mask.
Next for Wizards
Opponent: Memphis Grizzlies
Site: MCI Center, Washington
When: Wednesday, 7 p.m.
TV/Radio: NC8/WTNT (570 AM)