The Cleveland Cavaliers are struggling and their leader is playing in pain.
Cleveland (26-20) has lost seven of its last 10 games, with four of those losses to teams with records below .500.
The Cavaliers had a 12-point fourth-quarter lead at Miami with less than eight minutes remaining on Thursday, but missed 10 of their next 14 shots in a 92-89 loss. James returned after missing two of the Cavaliers’ previous three games because of a sprained right big toe, but was obviously hurting.
He was 3-for-8 from the free throw line and missed three free late throws, including one that would have tied it with 44.8 seconds left.
“We had a lot of chances,” said James, who also missed a 3-pointer that would have tied the score at the buzzer. “I take full responsibility for this loss.”
The three-time All-Star finished with 17 points on 6-of-18 shooting in 36 minutes. He’s also struggled against the Bobcats (17-28) this season.
James had his worst shooting performance of the season in the Cavs’ 92-88 loss on Nov. 4, as he finished just 3-of-13 from the floor for 16 points. He wasn’t much better in their next meeting either, as he had 22 points on 6-of-17 shooting before fouling out in the 104-101 win on Dec. 13.
While Cleveland’s recent skid has knocked them from first to fifth in the Eastern Conference, the Bobcats’ recent turnaround has the team thinking they can sneak into the playoffs for the first time in the franchise’s three-year history.
Charlotte defeated New York 104-87 on Wednesday behind a career-high 42 points from Gerald Wallace. He scored 17 points, including eight off of dunks, in the fourth quarter, and also added eight rebounds and three blocked shots.
Although the Bobcats are last in the Southeast Division, they have won 10 of their last 17 games, and Wallace believes they can make a serious playoff push in the mediocre East.
“In the Eastern Conference, with the record we have, if we just keep doing what we’re doing, there’s a great shot we’ll be in the playoffs,” Wallace said.
Improved offense has sparked the Bobcats’ recent turnaround. After averaging 92.4 points in its first 28 games, Charlotte’s averaging 100.4 points in his last 17.
Wallace, who had 25 points in a 105-101 win at Denver on Monday, is averaging 22.8 points on 54.6 percent shooting from the field in eight games after missing 2 1/2 weeks with a separated shoulder. He averaged just 13.3 points on 46.9 percent shooting in 30 games before the injury.
Wallace had just seven points in just under 28 minutes before fouling out in the win over Cleveland in November.
Raymond Felton had 16 points and 10 assists on Wednesday, and is averaging 21.3 points and 6.8 assists in his last four games against the Cavs.