A couple of veteran stars won’t be playing when the rookie star faces the Los Angeles Lakers for the first time.
With James thus far living up to his considerable hype, Monday’s game could have featured five superstars, with the No. 1 pick joining the Lakers’ four perennial All-Stars.
Each player is expected to miss at least one more game. O’Neal has missed four games after straining his right calf on Jan. 2 in a loss to Seattle, while Malone hasn’t played since injuring his knee in a Dec. 21 victory over Phoenix.
Without those two frontcourt stars, Los Angeles has gone from a dominant team to a struggling one. The Lakers lost four straight and six of seven before Friday’s 113-67 rout of the Atlanta Hawks.
“When you get used to playing a certain style of basketball, the void that’s left behind, not having those two studs back there really changes the physicality of a team,” Los Angeles coach Phil Jackson said, referring to Malone and O’Neal. “We become soft or weak, and weak-minded as a result.”
Cleveland has lost four of five, including the first two games of its six-game road trip. The trip moves to the West for the final four games after it opened with losses in Toronto and Boston.
The Cavs suffered their worst defeat of the season on Friday, 107-82 at Boston. James led Cleveland with 19 points, but coach Paul Silas left his star on the floor for 43 minutes despite the blowout.
“He needed to fight through it,” Silas said. “It’s easy to take him out when things go bad, but he’s part of the problem. And he’s got to learn how to fight through it, and that’s why I kept him in.”
James is averaging 26.1 points in his last seven road games, but the Cavs are 0-5 on the road against Western Conference teams. The Lakers are 9-0 at home against the East.
STANDINGS (through Jan. 10): Cavaliers - 7th place, 15 1/2 GB, Central Division. Lakers - 2nd place, 2 1/2 GB, Pacific Division.
TEAM LEADERS: Cavaliers - James, 19.9 ppg and 6.2 apg; Boozer, 10.5 rpg. Lakers - Bryant, 22.3 ppg; O’Neal, 11.6 rpg; Payton, 6.2 apg.
2002-03 SEASON SERIES: Tied, 1-1.
LAST MEETING: Jan. 10, 2003; Lakers, 115-99. At Los Angeles, the Lakers outscored the Cavs 70-48 across the middle two quarters and outrebounded them 54-38 to win easily. Bryant had 21 points, 10 rebounds and 11 assists.
ROAD/HOME RECORDS: Cavaliers - 2-17 on the road; Lakers - 16-2 at home.