This season it’s been James who is the NBA’s No. 1 scorer, averaging 29.7 points for the Cavaliers (23-19), who have won nine of their last 11 games. Bryant is scoring 27.7 points per game, but has been more passive than in the past two seasons, when he’s averaged 31.6 and 35.4 points, respectively.
A more balanced, well-rounded supporting cast has enabled Bryant to take fewer shots than he has in other years—nine other Lakers average between 6.5 and 13.2 points.
But with 20-year-old center Andrew Bynum, who averages 13.1 points, out until March with a knee injury, the onus is falling on Bryant to fill the void in the Lakers’ offense.
He’s done that in the five games since Bynum went down, scoring 32.8 points per contest. But Los Angeles is just 2-3 in those games and lost three of its past four. The Lakers fell behind by 17 after three quarters in a 112-105 loss at Dallas on Saturday despite 40 from Bryant.
“We did a great job of battling back and actually having an opportunity to do some damage there,” Bryant said. “It just never materialized for us.”
It was Bryant’s third 40-point effort this season, and the Lakers are 1-2 in those games.
Bryant has averaged 32.3 points in his last four games against the Cavaliers, though he only scored 21 in the Lakers’ visit to Cleveland on Dec. 20.
The Cavaliers, however, have won all four of those meetings. James had 33 points in their win over Los Angeles last month, and has averaged 27.4 in nine lifetime meetings with the Lakers.
Cleveland had won nine of its first 10 to start 2008, and led Phoenix most of the way on Friday night. But James missed a pair of inside shots late that would have sealed a victory for the Cavaliers, who lost 110-108 on Shawn Marion’s floater with 1.1 seconds to play.
“Some of those shots seemed like they were down in the net and something pulled the ball out,” said James, who scored 36 points.
Like the Lakers, the Cavaliers are also dealing with an injury to one of their starters. Sasha Pavlovic sprained his left foot in Cleveland’s 121-85 victory over the Wizards on Wednesday and could miss up to two months.
Oft-injured Larry Hughes should get more playing time in Pavlovic’s absence. Hughes, though, is suffering through the worst season of his 10-year career, averaging 9.6 points while shooting just 34.0 percent.
He had averaged just 5.3 points in his last four games prior to scoring 25 against Phoenix on Friday.
Center Zydrunas Ilgauskas has played well during the Cavaliers’ recent hot streak. He’s averaging 17.2 points and 8.0 rebounds over his last six games, shooting 61.1 percent.
Ilgauskas has averaged 18.4 points in 13 career games against Los Angeles.
On Feb. 15, the Cavaliers beat the Lakers 114-108 in their most recent trip to Staples Center, snapping a seven-game losing streak in Los Angeles.