CLEVELAND (AP)—LeBron James watched, waited and wondered if he was ever going back into the game. Once he re-entered, he was hardly needed.
Branded a one-man team in the past, the Cavaliers showed they can survive without their superstar.
James scored 22 points but was resting on the bench when Cleveland regained control in the fourth quarter, and the Cavaliers won their home opener 96-79 over Charlotte on Thursday night to spoil well-traveled coach Larry Brown’s debut with the Bobcats.
“It was kind of weird seeing LeBron on the bench,” center Zydrunas Ilgauskas said. “We got away with it, and if we can do that it will only help us and help his career.”
James barely missed a triple-double, adding nine rebounds and nine assists in only 30 minutes for the Cavs, who let the Bobcats trim a 19-point lead to five in the third quarter. But with James seated and wearing sweats, Cleveland regrouped and pushed its lead back to 16 to win comfortably.
“We had a lot of guys contribute and I got a lot of rest,” James said. “Coach believes in our roster and I believe in our roster. I don’t have to average 42 minutes like I have in the past because of our depth.”
Gibson made three 3-pointers and eight of 10 shots in the first half, when the Cavs opened a 17-point lead that swelled to 58-39 on James’ driving layup in the third.
But the young Bobcats, who went 0-8 in the preseason, rallied and cut it to 62-57 on Richardson’s layup.
The Cavs, though, responded while James was catching his breath. Coach Mike Brown pulled his star with 3:12 left in the third quarter and didn’t put him back in until there was 7:27 remaining. While James, who averaged 40.4 minutes per game last season, sat, Cleveland outscored Charlotte 19-10 and opened a 79-63 lead.
“This team is deep, at least on paper it’s deep,” said Mike Brown, who credited Williams with getting his team to focus on its defense during the critical stretch without James.
“I thought he brought our team together,” Brown said. “He understood it was about defense and got our team to believe in that.”
Williams, who came over in a summer trade with Milwaukee, wanted to pass around the praise.
“It was a total team effort,” he said. “We didn’t let up defensively and that’s what we have to do.”
Following the Bobcats’ winless exhibition season, Brown worried that his club wasn’t prepared for the opener.
“I’m not trying to make excuses, but I don’t think we’re quite ready right now,” he said.
The Hall of Famer was half right.
Charlotte was overmatched at times, but made a game of it in the second half before fading and falling to 0-8 in Cleveland.
“I’m not surprised with what’s going on,” said Larry Brown, coaching his ninth NBA team. “The big people we’re playing against seem to be more athletic and getting things done. A lot of our shots are tough shots. We’re settling for long jumpers. When we do penetrate, we penetrate so deep, we get a lot of shots blocked. They penetrate and kick it out.
“We didn’t expect it to be easy.”
The Bobcats did get their first look in more than a year at Adam Morrison and Sean May, who both missed last season with knee injuries. Morrison recently cut off his long hair and finished with seven points. May had two points and missed all six of his field-goal attempts.
Leading by nine after one, Brown, who wants to limit James to 38 minutes per game this season, kept the Olympic gold medalist on the bench for the first 6-plus minutes of the second quarter. James checked in with 5:45 left and the Cavaliers quickly ripped off eight straight to push their lead to 18.
While James was on the bench, Cleveland rookie J.J. Hickson grabbed a loose ball in the lane and threw down a nasty, two-handed slam for his first points as a pro. James, usually on the receiving end of ovations, jumped out of his chair and screamed for Hickson, who didn’t play in the Cavs’ opener.
The 68-year-old Brown hasn’t lost any of his feistiness, picking up a technical in the third. … Cavs C Ben Wallace had five blocks. … James was thrilled with Wednesday night’s rally and free concert for Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama that he co-hosted with hip-hop star Jay-Z. “It was great,” said James. “It wasn’t just a concert for Jay-Z, it was a big-picture thing.” James previously donated $20,000 to Obama’s campaign. … Crews for TV’s “60 Minutes” have been trailing James for the past few days for an upcoming segment on Cleveland’s star. … At least for one night, the Cavs toned down their extravagant pregame ceremony, which used to include four fire-spewing swords on the scoreboard. During a visit to Cleveland during last year’s playoffs, NBA commissioner David Stern lamented the use of pyrotechnics around the league.