Miami Heat

LeBron James returns to Miami Heat practice, will wear protective mask

LeMask will make its debut against the New York Knicks.

Heat forward LeBron James, who broke his nose last week, is expected to play Thursday with a protective mask covering his face.

Locked in a battle for not only the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference, but also his third consecutive MVP award, James has missed an entire week of action, and now must adjust to finishing the season with an annoying, if not potentially problematic, injury.

One hit to the face and James could miss more time.

“Every day is better and better, but I haven’t been hit in it either,” James said. “Morning time and at night are always difficult.”

James’ nose was reset on Friday and he is still experiencing blockages in his nasal passages. The mask should protect James from serious injury, but pain and sensitivity to the affected area will linger for months. Despite the potential of more contact to his face, James said he isn’t going to change his game or curb his intensity.

With 28 games left in the regular season, the Heat is just now rounding into postseason form.

Cautious approach

Heat coach Erik Spoelstra and team trainers have been cautious all season with injuries in preparation for the stretch run, and now the Heat (40-14) is playing its best basketball of the season. The team is 8-1 in February and trails the Indiana Pacers by one game in the loss column of the Eastern Conference standings.

“My game is not going to change,” James said. “Defenses are going to cover me the best way they can. I won’t change my game because of the mask. I will be a little tentative at first going out there, but I’ll get used to it.”

After watching Sunday’s impressive victory against the Bulls from the bench, James rested on Monday and returned to practice Tuesday. He did not participate in contact drills, however, and hasn’t yet tested his protective mask. James said he plans on wearing the mask for Wednesday’s practice, but likely will be held out of full-contact drills once again.

James conditioned on Monday and ran through non-contact offensive drills.

“He looked the same,” Chris Bosh said. “He can break anything and he’ll still look the same. That’s why he’s LeBron.”

James has scored at least 30 points in seven of his past nine games while also ratcheting up his intensity level on the defensive end. The Heat held the Thunder to a season-low 81 points on Thursday. The Bulls, playing without Derrick Rose, managed just 79 points on Sunday.

And although the Heat has played with disinterest against otherwise uncompetitive teams throughout the season, James said that problem should be behind the defending back-to-back champions, especially against teams such as New York.

“Even though the Knicks have a losing record, I don’t think we play down to them,” James said. “It’s a rivalry game in a sense of the franchises have some history. But we’re not concerned about that.

“We’re at a point right now in the season where we understand where we’re at. We understand the type of basketball we’ve been playing, and we look forward to continuing that.”

Some challenges

The mask presents some challenges, but nothing James hasn’t already experienced. He wore a mask for a few weeks earlier in his career with Cleveland after fracturing a cheekbone in 2005. Still, he doesn’t like wearing it.

“It’s a difficult challenge,” James said. “It’s like someone constantly has something in your face. A hand is in your face at all times, like an added defender that you definitely don’t want.”

Roster moves

Filling out its roster after trading Roger Mason Jr., the Heat signed guard DeAndre Liggins to a 10-day contract Tuesday.

Liggins will be available for the Heat’s home game against the Knicks.

Drafted in the second round (53rd pick) out of the University of Kentucky in 2011 by the Orlando Magic, Liggins most recently played for the Heat’s D-League affiliate, the Sioux Falls Skyforce.

He averaged 14.5 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 2.54 steals per game for Sioux Falls.

“I’m going to try to do my job to stay as long as I can,” Liggins said.

The Heat can re-sign Liggins after 10 days, or sign another free agent to take his place.

This is Liggins’ third NBA team. He played 17 games for the Magic during the 2011-12 season, and then played 39 games for Oklahoma City last season. Liggins was released by the Thunder in September after being charged with domestic abuse in the presence of a minor, a felony. The felony charge was recently dropped in Oklahoma.

“We all make mistakes, unfortunately,” Liggins said. “I learned from it, I moved past it and I’m ready to get back on track.”

In a move to clear a roster spot before the playoffs, the Heat traded Mason to the Sacramento Kings for a second-round pick on Feb. 20. Liggins provides the Heat with a more versatile defensive option off the bench.

“He has been coached under our umbrella and is highly recommended from our staff there,” Spoelstra said. “The type of things he does, we like, so this gives us an opportunity to look at him for a few days.”

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