INDEPENDENCE - LeBron James is done coming off the bench. Larry Hughes might not be.
Cavaliers coach Mike Brown won`t commit to saying Hughes will be his sixth man on a permanent basis - and Hughes isn`t totally sold on the idea, either - but the two-game results have been impressive.
Hughes had 22 points off the bench Saturday in Charlotte, then exploded for 36 Tuesday against Indiana - when he made 13 of 17 attempts from the field to raise his shooting percentage from .307 to .391.
"Larry Hughes was as good as anybody," Pacers center Troy Murphy said. "He hit (five) threes and he was going to the cup. He was great."
Since Hughes has never really found his niche in two-plus seasons in Cleveland, Brown is toying with the idea of bringing the 6-foot-5, 185-pounder off the bench on a permanent basis. How serious the coach is about the idea changes from day to day, but it`s likely to continue for at least a few more games.
"I thought Larry played a whale of a game," Brown said following the Indiana game. "He got some great looks and he took advantage of the looks he had. That was fun to watch."
Hughes isn`t going to score 36 points off the bench on a regular basis - or even the 22 he got against Charlotte, for that matter - but using him that way makes sense on several fronts.
No. 1, he`s athletic and can create opportunities for himself and others, something that can`t be said about reserves Damon Jones and Devin Brown.
No. 2, regular starting shooting guard Sasha Pavlovic has decent athleticism, but his timid nature and up-and-down play after missing the entire preseason probably make him better suited to play the majority of his minutes with James, where he can better take advantage of his teammate`s multiple talents.
No. 3, Hughes can come in off the bench with a care-free, aggressive attitude and not worry as much about deferring to James, with whom he has never totally meshed since joining the Cavs as a free agent. On nights when Hughes has it going, Brown can ride him. On nights when he`s clanging jumpers off the rim, which history says he will do more often than not, the Cavs can yank him.
In a best-case scenario, the St. Louis native will fill the role Manu Ginobili has filled for San Antonio, or Jason Terry or Jerry Stackhouse has filled with the Dallas Mavericks.
Not only that, if the oft-injured Hughes goes down again - he recently missed 11 games with a bruised knee - the Cavs can immediately plug Jones, Shannon Brown or Devin Brown into his spot off the bench and avoid altering their starting lineup.
For the time being, though, the Cavs are just happy to have Hughes playing - and playing well.
"Mentally, he is going out there and playing the game of basketball," James said. "He`s a natural (shooting) guard. What he does best is come off screens and go off the dribble and make shots. He`s been in the zone the last two games and we need that from him. We don`t expect him to go out and score 30-plus points every night, but we need him to go out and score points for us and play the way he played (against the Pacers)."
Hughes, as thoughtful and likable a guy as there is on the team off the court, has never felt totally comfortable since signing with the Cavs in the summer of 2005. He`s never come out and directly criticized the coaching staff or front office, but he`s also never really held himself accountable for his struggles.
Last season, for instance, he seemed to like the idea of playing point guard when he was performing well. Now, he`s done almost a 180-degree turn and said he prefers to play without the ball in his hands.
"I`ve been catching a rhythm and have had the opportunity to play off the ball more," Hughes said. "I think that works better for what I like to do."
Whether his long-term role doing that - Mike Brown said Hughes will also have to play some point guard from time to time - will be off the bench or in the starting lineup hasn`t really been decided, but one thing is certain: James will be back in the starting lineup Friday night when the Cavs visit the New Jersey Nets.
"That`s over with," the 6-8, 250-pounder said of his reserve role after scoring 17 points off the bench against Indiana.
James had started 365 straight games as a pro (332 in the regular season, 33 in the playoffs). The small forward, who did come off the bench in a number of games for the U.S. Olympic team in 2004, did like the thought of one thing, however.
"Sixth Man and (NBA) MVP, huh?" he quipped.
Well, maybe not if the experiment of using Hughes off the bench goes extremely well.
Contact Rick Noland at (330) 721-4061 or firstname.lastname@example.org.