CLEVELAND – LeBron James hardly needed any assistance from the hired help.

Cleveland’s All-Star forward, playing his first regular-season game with new teammates brought in to help get him to the playoffs, made six 3-pointers and scored 31 points as the Cavaliers beat the New Orleans Hornets 109-87 in their season opener Wednesday night.

James made five straight 3-pointers – four in a row during a 1:44 span over Hornets forward Bostjan Nachbar – and scored 24 points in the first half as the Cavs built a 21-point lead and buzzed the Hornets, who won their opener on Tuesday over Sacramento.

But New Orleans couldn’t contain James, who had lost his first game in his two previous NBA seasons.

The Cavaliers, whose collapse down the stretch cost them a playoff spot last season, spent $150 million in free agency this summer, signing Larry Hughes, Donyell Marshall, Damon Jones and re-signing Zydrunas Ilgauskas to make sure James is never absent from the postseason again.

The quartet combined for 52 points, 22 rebounds and 10 assists, but it was James’ deadeye outside shooting that put the game out of reach early and helped rookie Cleveland coach Mike Brown win his debut.

Speedy Claxton led the Hornets with 16 points, J.R. Smith added 15 and rookie Chris Paul had 13.

James, who came into the league with the rap of being a lousy outside shooter, promised during the preseason that he would wait until the regular season to unveil a new wrinkle in his game.

Apparently, he was referring to his deeper range.

James let it rip in the second quarter, sinking a 3-pointer on four straight possessions as the Cavaliers opened a 62-42 lead.

Following his steal, James drained a 3-pointer from the right wing with 4:20 left in the half to make it 53-38. Just 26 seconds later, he knocked one down from the left side. On Cleveland’s next possession, he pulled up in Nachbar’s face from the top of the key, sinking another 3 and sending the sellout crowd of 20,562 into a frenzy.

Following a timeout, James chuckled as he went back onto the floor and quickly hit his fifth 3-pointer of the half. As he retreated on defense, the 20-year-old blew on his hand like a gunslinger cooling off his hot hand.

Early in the third quarter, James dropped his sixth consecutive 3 to make it 72-47, and after making a conventional three-point play, he sat out the final 3:22 of the period with the Cavs comfortably ahead.

Notes: James feels 50 victories are a realistic goal for the Cavaliers, who went 42-40 last season. “I think we can get to 50,” he said. Asked what Cleveland has that it didn’t last year, James said: “Everything.” … After being forced out of New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, Hornets coach Byron Scott is happy the season is underway. “It’s been a crazy couple of months,” he said. “We’ve settled in Oklahoma City, but are still playing for the fans in New Orleans. We have more fans than ever before.” … On Tuesday, 20-year-olds Paul and Smith made modern NBA history as the youngest opening night backcourt since 1970. The pair have a combined age of 40 years, 7 months and 20 days. … Michelle Williams of Grammy-winning R&B trio Destiny’s Child sang the national anthem.

AP-ES-11-02-05 2214EST


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