Because of a broken left cheekbone, LeBron James (left) may have to wear a face mask for up to six weeks. "It took me two to three weeks to get used to it," says Richard Hamilton, who wore a mask while helping to lead the Pistons to last year's NBA title. "It would slide, it would get hot; I'd make a move on a guy, and the mask would come right over my face." But he learned to think of it as a shield for absorbing elbows in the lane, and today he has it framed alongside his championship jersey.... Bobcats forward Emeka Okafor's streak of 19 double doubles, which ended on Monday, broke the rookie record of 16, set by the Cincinnati Royals' Jerry Lucas in 1963-64.... The reason the Bulls went 8-7 in December for their first winning month in six years is that coach Scott Skiles persuaded his young team to play defense: Through Sunday, Chicago (10-17) was holding opponents to just 42.0% shooting, third best in the league. The Bulls' success may also be a boon to Phoenix, which holds the rights to Chicago's No. 1 pick in 2005 as long as it isn't among the top three.


On the Jazz (11-20), who at week's end had gone 3-15 since Andrei Kirilenko sprained his right knee:

"It would be easier if Kirilenko were simply their leading scorer, but he does so much more. Not only does he give them scoring and rebounding, but he's also their best shot blocker. He's the guy diving on the floor, deflecting passes, getting their defense going, driving their fast break by running the lane. Without him they have no identity, and nobody else on their team looks quite as good. Now they're struggling to find a reliable point guard; they're unhappy with what they're getting from Mehmet Okur (right); and they're realizing that Carlos Boozer may be an excellent complementary player but he isn't good enough to be the focal point."


3. If the Nuggets aren't interested in keeping interim head coach Michael Cooper, then their best bet for a smooth change of command is Mavericks assistant Del Harris, who has a good rapport with G.M. Kiki Vandeweghe from their days on the bench in Dallas.

2. Though this group is inferior to the high school class that produced eight No. 1 picks last year, look for as many teenagers to enter the 2005 draft out of fear that next season's collective bargaining agreement will have a 20-year-old minimum-age rule.

1. Where have you gone, Detroit Pistons? You're letting down the millions of traditional basketball fans who were counting on you to confirm that it is better to play as a team than rely on a superstar.

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