Yao struggled in his first game after missing more than two months with a leg injury and the Cavaliers held off the Houston Rockets 91-85 Monday night, led by James' 32 points, 12 rebounds and eight assists.
Yao sat at his locker with a bag of ice on his right knee after the game. He finished with 16 points, 11 rebounds, two blocks and five turnovers.
The 7-foot-6 center had just one practice since recovering from a broken bone under his knee. It showed.
"In the second quarter, third quarter, I was almost like a high school player," Yao said. "Sometimes, Cleveland would just steal the ball from my hand."
Yao airballed a left hook on the Rockets' first possession, but immediately got in the Cavaliers' way on the other end by blocking a shot.
Wearing a black brace on his right knee, Yao looked slow and out of synch on offense, letting a crisp pass tip off his hands and missing open shots.
"Uneven, which is to be expected," Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy said. "But he's got to cut down on his turnovers. We can't play well if he goes right back to what he was doing before he got hurt, which is being a high turnover guy. It's impossible to have offensive rhythm."
James, whose popularity in China helped him top Yao in All-Star voting this year, scored more than 30 points for the fourth straight game. The Cavaliers have won three of those four.
James got help from Larry Hughes, who had been struggling until recently and is finally starting to complement the superstar as the Cavaliers envisioned.
Hughes had 22 points, seven assists and six rebounds and said this is the most comfortable he's felt since joining the Cavaliers as a free agent last season.
With rookie Daniel Gibson out with a sprained toe, Hughes played some point guard, which he said he'd like to do more often.
"I'm able to create," he said. "I'm able to get everybody involved, feel the flow of the game, know what plays we can run."
James wouldn't mind seeing that as well.
"If he keeps playing the way he is playing now, we might have to keep him in there," James said.
Yao, who played 27 minutes, helped spark the Rockets in the fourth quarter after they trailed by 14. He scored seven straight points and provided a presence inside that forced Cleveland to take outside shots.
The Rockets, who have lost four of five, pulled to within 84-82 on Tracy McGrady's jumper with 1:34 left. But Zydrunas Ilgauskas put back James' missed jumper on the next possession to protect the lead.
Ilgauskas then stole ball from Yao, who fell to the floor in a heap. Hughes tossed an alley-oop to James on the other end and he slammed in it for a 88-82 lead.
Yao, who said he fell on his elbow to avoid landing on his right knee, got up with help from a trainer, hobbled off, but returned to the game.
McGrady responded with a 3-pointer to pull within 88-85 after the Cavaliers twice couldn't grab a rebound.
Hughes hit 3-of-4 free throws in the final 10 seconds, the last two after McGrady missed a tough 3-pointer.
McGrady led Houston with 25 points but struggled, going 10-for-32 and setting a season-high for attempts. He often took a shot as soon as the ball touched his hands.
McGrady took a couple knees to his thigh but refused to blame the injuries on his rough performance.
"They got a lot of opportunities in the transition where they really kicked out butts and that was the turning point," McGrady said.
Shane Battier scored 15 and the Rockets got only 14 points from their bench.
Ilgauskas had just eight points but added three blocks, two steals and made things difficult for Yao.
"He had a great steal on Yao, hit the ball away and we got a fast-break dunk," James said.
James opened up a 43-33 lead on a three-point play just before halftime. McGrady shot 2-for-13 and Yao 1-for-9 in the first half.
"I can't wait for my next game," Yao said.
Cleveland is 16-5 when Hughes scores 20 or more points. ... The Cavaliers are 10-1 at home against Western Conference teams. ... G/F Bonzi Wells did not travel with the team because of a sore right foot. ... The Rockets were 20-12 without Yao. ... Cavaliers coach Mike Brown celebrated his 37th birthday Monday. ... James held up his palms in disgust after high-energy F Anderson Varejao pushed him out of bounds, knocking lose a rebound.