Already struggling to live up to lofty expectations thrust upon them by their hometown superstar’s return, the Cleveland Cavaliers now must attempt to turn things around without LeBron James.
All-Star forward Kevin Love is expected to play as the visiting Cavaliers try to avoid their fourth consecutive defeat Friday night against a scuffling Charlotte Hornets team with injury concerns of its own.
James left Cleveland’s loss at Miami on Christmas Day after jumping into the stands to chase an errant pass. He then had to sit out a 109-101 defeat at Atlanta on Tuesday and a 96-80 home loss to Milwaukee the next night.
The Cavaliers learned Thursday the four-time MVP would be out at least two weeks with knee and back strains. The 30-year-old forward acknowledged his knee has been hurting all year and that 11 seasons are beginning to take a toll.
”I’ve got 41,000 minutes on me, including the playoffs,” he joked. ”You drive that car in the winter time.”
If the two-week timetable holds up, James’ absence could reach 10 games or more. The Cavaliers (18-14) have lost their three games without him this season by an average of 11.0 points.
Starting center Anderson Varejao is already out for the season with a torn Achilles, reserve Shawn Marion has missed the past two games with a sprained ankle and Love has been dealing with back spasms. Marion and Love, though, are expected to play.
The Cavs would certainly welcome Love’s return after he’s averaged 27.3 points and 15.2 rebounds in his last six meetings with Charlotte dating to his time in Minnesota. He scored 22 and pulled down a season-high 19 boards in a 97-88 home victory Dec. 15 that ended Cleveland’s five-game skid in the series.
The Cavaliers, who have lost seven of 12 overall, hope to avert their longest losing streak since a four-game slide in November. They’ve scored 87.0 per game on 38.6 percent shooting – including 28.6 from 3-point range – in their last three defeats.
Kyrie Irving may be asked to carry the scoring load again, averaging 28.5 points over his last four games. The star point guard scored a career-high 44 in a home loss to Charlotte in April, but only had 16 in last month’s matchup.
"For us right now we’ve just to pick it up," Irving said. "I think we’re ready to do so, but we need a little bit more. I’m going to have to give more. As a group we have to figure this out.”
The Hornets (10-23) are also short-handed with leading scorer and rebounder Al Jefferson out at least four weeks due to a left groin strain. He averaged 8.0 points over a three-game stretch before missing Wednesday’s 102-83 loss at Houston.
”He just can’t pivot off that one foot which is such a big part of his game,” coach Steve Clifford said. ”So we want to have it get back to the point that he can play pain free (and) that’s what we’re going to do.”
Since averaging 107.8 points on 47.3 percent shooting during a season-best four-game winning streak, Clifford’s club has scored 86.5 with a 36.3 field-goal percentage over its current four-game slide.
Kemba Walker had 12 points against the Rockets, but he’s scored a combined 70 in his past two home games. He finished with a team-high 24 points in the first meeting with the Cavaliers.
Charlotte’s Marvin Williams should be available after receiving three stitches in a collision Wednesday. Lance Stephenson is expected to miss his ninth consecutive game due to a pelvic sprain.