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LeBron pains the Heat

Led by James’ 25, struggling Cavs take a step forward with a win over Wade-led Miami.

Cleveland Cavaliers’ LeBron James dunks for two of his 25 points in the fourth quarter of the Cavaliers’ 96-82 win over the Miami Heat in an NBA game Tuesday in Cleveland.

AP photo

CLEVELAND — LeBron James winced as he pressed the ice bag tightly against his swollen jaw.

On Christmas, he felt lucky to still have his two front teeth.

“I got elbowed by Shaq in the face, which is not a good thing,” James said. “Ever.”

James shook off the big man’s blow to the head and scored 25 points, Drew Gooden had 18 and Cleveland’s defense arrived in time for the holiday, sparking the struggling Cavaliers to a 96-82 win over the Miami Heat on Tuesday.

James, who left Quicken Loans Arena in disgust following an embarrassing loss to Golden State on Sunday, added 12 assists and outshined fellow superstar and good friend Dwyane Wade, who scored 22 points but didn’t make his first field goal of the second half until there was only 4:01 remaining.

By then, the Cavaliers were already ahead by 12 points, and thanks to a defense that had gone AWOL for most of the season’s first two months, they rolled to just their fourth win in the last 14 games.

“When we play defense we’re a pretty good team,” James said. “When we don’t, we don’t look so well — simple as that. Today was a good step.”

Daniel Gibson scored 16 points, including six on consecutive 3-pointers to open the fourth. Anderson Varejao scored 15 and Zydrunas Ilgauskas 13 for Cleveland, which had one of its most balanced games this season — and its most lopsided win.

Wade finished 7-of-18 from the floor and 8-of-16 from the free-throw line for Miami (8-20), which began the season as one of the Eastern Conference’s favorites but is headed in the wrong direction.

Wade refused to blame a sore right shoulder for his shooting woes.

“I was just missing shots,” he said. “It wasn’t their defense, it was nothing they did special.”

Two years removed from an NBA championship, coach Pat Riley’s team doesn’t look like one ready for a title run.

Wade was asked if Miami’s current group of players is the right one.

“That’s not my job,” he said. “My job is to go out there and play. I don’t worry about the mix. That’s Coach’s job. He’s the president.”

About the only positive for the Heat was that Shaquille O’Neal didn’t foul out. The center of the Heat’s universe had been disqualified from his previous five games, coming within one of matching the NBA record set by Milwaukee’s Don Boven in 1952.

O’Neal picked up his fifth foul with 6:55 left and was immediately pulled by Riley. Ricky Davis had 15 points and O’Neal 13 for the Heat, who had 10 of their 18 turnovers in the third quarter.

“We were very, very careless with the ball,” O’Neal said. “Our defense loosened up a little bit and they were able to score a lot in the paint. As soon as we’re able to take care of those things, maybe we can become a pretty good team.”

Looking for a quick fix, Cavs coach Mike Brown resorted to a starting lineup that helped Cleveland to its first conference title last season. He replaced Gibson with Larry Hughes, who had been coming off the bench, at point guard alongside Sasha Pavlovic.

Making his first start since Nov. 14, Hughes had only four points but he played excellent defense and contained Wade, who never got a chance to go off.

Hughes has taken the brunt of booing from frustrated Cleveland fans wondering what happened to last season’s scrappy squad.

“It bothers me for the fact that especially at home they should be rooting the team on,” he said. “If they want to get on one guy, I don’t think that’s the way to do it.”

Trailing 53-43 midway through the third, the Cavaliers upped their defensive pressure and it paid off as the Heat began turning the ball over with sloppy passes, charges and assorted violations.

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