After leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to their best month of basketball in nearly a dozen years, LeBron James was named the Eastern Conference player of the month for January. He's also making a strong case for the league's MVP award.
The Cavaliers hope James can return to the lineup Saturday after missing one game with an ankle injury, and help the team carry last month's success into February when they host the stumbling Los Angeles Clippers.
Cleveland (25-20) went an East-leading 11-3 in January, after having the conference's fifth-worst record in December at 5-9. The Cavaliers were tied with Philadelphia for the East's ninth-best record on New Year's Eve, but have since jumped to fourth.
January was Cleveland's best month since going 10-2 in February 1996. James was imperative to that success, averaging a league-high 32.8 points, 9.2 rebounds and 6.4 assists in 13 games. He topped the 30-point mark eight times, and is averaging 38.0 points and 10.0 boards in his last three games
James, the league's leading scorer at 30.1 points, missed Thursday's 101-95 loss to lowly Seattle, as the Cavs dropped to 0-6 without him on the season.
"It's definitely an adjustment. We basically run everything through him, so when he's not out there, it takes us a while to figure out where we are most effective," Cleveland guard Larry Hughes said of the four-time All-Star.
James injured his right ankle with 23 seconds left before halftime Wednesday against Portland, but still played 44 minutes. He finished with 37 points and 14 rebounds, and his layup with less than a second left gave Cleveland an 84-83 victory.
James joined injured forward Anderson Varejao, who was hurt Sunday in a victory over the Los Angeles Lakers, and starting guard Sasha Pavlovic. Varejao is expected to miss up to four weeks with a left ankle sprain, and Pavlovic is out six weeks with a left mid-foot sprain.
"No matter if LeBron is playing or not, or Sasha is playing or not, or Anderson is playing or not, it doesn't matter who is playing. The one thing you need to do is compete," said Cleveland's Mike Brown, the reigning East coach of the month.
James had 22 points, eight assists, six steals and five rebounds in Cleveland's 103-95 win over the Clippers on Nov. 11.
The Cavs swept the two-game season series over Los Angeles in 2006-07, and have won five straight and 11 of the last 13 meetings in Cleveland.
The Clippers (14-29), meanwhile, have had no success on the road lately, losing a season-high eight straight there since a 98-91 win at Memphis on Dec. 14. Los Angeles has been outscored by an average of 14.0 points and outrebounded by an average of 7.0 boards during its skid as it tries to avoid its first nine-game road skid since Feb. 4-28, 2005.
The Clippers opened a season-high seven-game road trip with a 104-83 loss to Minnesota on Friday, their 16th in 21 games.
Los Angeles played its third straight game without leading scorers Corey Maggette (20.9) and Chris Kaman (17.2), who both were out with the flu.
"We're not complaining about it, because that's the hand we were dealt. So we've got to play it," Sam Cassell said of his team's injuries.
Cassell had a team-high 17 points on Friday, and scored 28 points against Cleveland earlier this season.
Maggette had 25 points and 11 rebounds against the Cavs in November, while Kaman had 21 points and nine boards in that game.