If the Cleveland Cavaliers are inclined to make a case later in the season for LeBron James' MVP candidacy, they can point to their last six games - a stretch in which they haven't won without their star player.
With his sprained left index finger sufficiently healed, James is expected to return to the lineup Tuesday night when the Cavaliers host the Indiana Pacers.
James hurt his finger midway through the second quarter of Cleveland's loss to Detroit on Nov. 28. His absence in the second half turned a close game into a 109-74 win for the Pistons, and the Cavaliers (9-12) have lost their last five without him.
Following practice on Monday, though, James said the finger has improved and sounded confident he would dress for this contest.
"It's better than it was a week and half ago,'' said James, who will represent the United States at next summer's Beijing Olympics. "The pain is going away little by little. It's not 100 percent at all right now and it probably won't be until the offseason, and I don't have an offseason until 2009.''
Cleveland has won four straight against the Pacers, including a 111-106 victory at Indiana on Nov. 25, when James notched his fourth triple-double of the season. The Cavaliers have won seven of the last eight overall meetings in this series, and haven't lost at home to the Pacers (10-10) since Nov. 3, 2004.
With James in the lineup during the team's first 15 contests, Cleveland went 9-6 and was averaging 102.1 points per game, led by their star's career-best averages of 30.7 points, 8.1 assists and 7.6 rebounds. Including the game against Detroit, they've since scored just 80.7 points and have lost by an average of 16.1.
Their lone close game during the slide came Saturday at Charlotte. Cleveland got guard Larry Hughes - who had missed a month with a bone bruise in his left leg - back in the lineup, and he scored a team-high 22 points. But the Bobcats went 14-for-14 from the free-throw line in the final minute to hand the Cavaliers their sixth straight loss, 96-93.
"We have the pieces here to turn things around," said Hughes, who had four of Cleveland's 25 turnovers. "We're not in the basement. We feel like there's a good chance we'll be on the top of the East when it's all done."
Aside from James' return and Hughes being back, the Cavaliers are anticipating getting restricted free agent Anderson Varejao in the lineup for the first time in 2007-08. Varejao signed an offer sheet with Charlotte last week, which Cleveland matched, and though he practiced with the team for the first time Friday, it's unclear if he'll play against Indiana.
The Pacers have won seven of 11 following a six-game losing streak in mid-November. Their latest win may have been their best of the season.
Trailing by eight at halftime in Orlando on Friday, the Pacers scored 61 points in the second half to beat the Magic 115-109.
Point guard Jamaal Tinsley directed the comeback, scoring 14 of his 20 points and handing out six of his 10 assists in the second half. He had seven points during a 14-1 Pacers' run in the fourth quarter that put the game out of reach.
"Jamaal is making big plays on a pretty regular basis," Indiana coach Jim O'Brien said. "He pretty much orchestrated the whole thing. He knew exactly what we wanted down the stretch and did a great job of getting guys to the right spot to make plays."
Tinsley was the apparent target of a shooting in front of an Indianapolis hotel early Sunday morning that wounded the team's equipment manager, and he's been involved in three late-night incidents in the past 14 months, one of which will require him to go on trial on Jan 14.
"Of course, you worry about your fans and the community and how people look at you," he said. "I made a stupid mistake, again."
The Pacers announced on Monday that Tinsley wouldn't be punished for his involvement in the shooting.
"He has every right to go to a club, there is no curfew, and he, to the best of my knowledge, did nothing wrong, other than he exercised poor judgment as to how late he was out and the environment he was in," O'Brien said. "He didn't break any of our rules."
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