CHARLOTTE, N.C. — LeBron James and the Cavaliers were already struggling with their rhythm in Shaquille O’Neal’s return from injury.
When Michael Jordan started giving Gerald Wallace pointers on how to play LeBron, Cleveland was doomed.
Listening intently to Jordan and attacking a foul-prone James, Wallace had 31 points and 14 rebounds, and the Charlotte Bobcats took advantage of the disjointed Cavaliers in a 94-87 victory on Friday night.
The surprising Bobcats won their third straight game following a seven-game losing streak behind Wallace, who beat James in numerous 1-on-1 matchups in the post — at the urging of the Bobcats managing partner sitting courtside.
“He’s rooting, but he also has his suggestions on how we should play,” Wallace said of Jordan. “He’s just like any other fan. He just happens to be Michael Jordan — and he’s also the boss.”
James scored 25 points, but Cleveland had its three-game winning streak snapped just as O’Neal returned after missing six games with a strained left shoulder.
O’Neal recovered after missing five of his first seven shots to finish with 11 points and eight rebounds. But with a slowed-down offense without a flow, Cleveland fell to 6-4 when he plays and 5-1 when he’s sidelined.
“While he was out, things just flowed because we were playing loose,” James said. “We had enough time where we had a certain lineup going. I don’t think we’ve had enough games with him in the lineup.”
Shaq was on the floor for much of the fourth quarter, when Cleveland cut a 24-point, third-quarter deficit to seven. But even with the Bobcats going the final 9 minutes without a field goal, the Cavaliers only outscored Charlotte 16-12 in the fourth.
Coach Mike Brown said before the game he wanted to limit O’Neal to about 25 minutes. O’Neal played 29, hitting 5 of 11 shots and 1 of 3 free throws.
While there’s nearly five months before the playoffs start, Shaq’s offseason acquisition isn’t panning out yet.
“I felt pretty good,” O’Neal said. “I missed a couple of chippies that I usually don’t like to miss. But, overall, we made a lost of silly mistakes.”
Stephen Jackson added 17 points for Charlotte. Nazr Mohammed had 13 points and six rebounds, and was O’Neal’s main defender as the Bobcats improved to 6-2 at home.
Mo Williams added 22 points for the Cavaliers, who had beaten Charlotte seven straight times.
Wallace had the better of James for much of the third quarter, hitting three 3-pointers and often scoring over James in the post. Wallace’s 3 with 7:42 left put Charlotte ahead 74-50.
“I mean Gerald was shooting like 14 percent from the 3-point line coming into the game,” James said. “We doubled up the right guy and he knocked two of them down. It really hurt us.”
Jordan was urging Wallace to post up James after he picked up three fouls in the first half. Wallace scored over James from the left block to make it 80-61.
“It’s not so much as an edge posting him up. It’s the situation he was put in,” Wallace said. “I think he had three, four fouls, so he’s going to be a little tentative then. It’s time to go at him and be aggressive. I think we did a great job of attacking him.”
James soon raised the intensity. He hit two quick 3s in a 19-5 run that cut the lead to 11 entering the fourth. But the Cavaliers had dug too big a hole from the first half.
It was a bad combination for Cleveland: O’Neal was rusty and James was called for two charges and a travel. There was a brief scare when James turned his left ankle when he stepped on D.J. Augustin’s foot on a drive.
He returned, but was on the bench for the final 3 minutes with three fouls. With O’Neal shooting just 2-for-6 and lumbering up the court, the Bobcats were running at will in building a 58-43 halftime lead.
A couple weeks after James suggested he and the rest of the NBA players wearing No. 23 should change to honor Jordan, the new Hall of Famer watched his team post its third straight strong performance — at LeBron’s expense.