Preview: Lakers vs. Cleveland Cavaliers

Lakers to face Cavaliers with LeBron James, back from injuries, on Thursday at Staples Center

The Lakers (12-27) host LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers (19-20) on Thursday night at Staples Center.

James returned Tuesday night from back and knee injuries, only to see his team lose their sixth game in a row in overtime to the Suns in Phoenix, 107-100.

The Cavaliers have struggled against tremendous expectations this season, with the return of James and the addition of Kevin Love.  The team recently acquired J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert from the New York Knicks, and Timofey Mozgov from the Denver Nuggets.

Shumpert is out with a shoulder injury. Mozgov has traditionally been a difficult cover for the Lakers.

Kobe Bryant (rest), Jordan Hill (knee) and Ronnie Price (elbow) are all expected to play.  The Lakers are missing Julius Randle (knee) and Steve Nash (back).  Anderson Varejao (knee) is out for the season for the Cavaliers.

Key matchup

James is still one of the best players in the NBA, averaging 25.5 points, 5.3 rebounds and 7.5 assists a game.

At his best, James can be nearly unstoppable offensively both as a scorer and a playmaker out of the forward position.

In Miami, where he won two titles with the Heat, he had the complementary pieces to go all the way.  Thus far, the squad around him in Cleveland hasn't impressed.

The Lakers probably will try to guard James with Wesley Johnson.

Ryan Kelly has been Johnson's backup of late, but neither he nor Nick Young look like suitable matchups against James -- then again, the Lakers may not have much else to offer defensively.

On the offensive end, Kobe Bryant needs to find his footing, shooting just three for 19 in Tuesday night's 79-75 loss to the Heat.  Young has also struggled with his shot recently.

X-factor

The Lakers may have better luck defensively against Love with a number of players to throw his way, including Ed Davis, Carlos Boozer, Jordan Hill, Tarik Black, Robert Sacre, Kelly and Johnson.

Mozgov may be more of a problem inside.  Kyrie Irving is another issue; the high-scoring point guard will keep Ronnie Price and Jeremy Lin busy.

The Cavaliers can struggle defensively as well.  Big scoring nights from Boozer, Davis and Hill could make the difference for the Lakers.

Outlook

Without James, the Lakers are probably the favorite.  Instead, look for the Cavaliers to end their losing streak at the Lakers' expense.

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus

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