When the Los Angeles Lakers and Cleveland Cavaliers last met nearly one year ago, each team had 32 wins. They have a combined 35 this time, with the Lakers accounting for all but eight of them.
In a matchup that has lost significant luster, surging Los Angeles opens a potentially easy portion of its schedule Tuesday night when it hosts a Cavaliers team hoping to avoid losing for the 21st time in 22 games.
The Lakers (27-11) were swept by Cleveland in last season's two-game series and have lost seven of the last nine meetings, but things will likely be considerably different this time with LeBron James in Miami.
Without James, who had 37 points to lead the Cavaliers to a 93-87 victory in the last meeting between these teams Jan. 21, Cleveland (8-29) has the NBA's worst record.
The two-time defending champion Lakers are legitimate title contenders again, and have a good opportunity to improve their record this week.
Pacific Division-leading Los Angeles visits Golden State on Wednesday, then hosts New Jersey on Friday before donning its road uniforms to face the Clippers on Sunday. Including Cleveland, this week's four opponents are a combined 45-102.
"This is an opportunity for us to play well, and have some good things happen for us," coach Phil Jackson said.
The Lakers shut down high-powered New York 109-87 on Sunday to win for the sixth time in seven games.
"It feels like we're learning things," said Kobe Bryant, who averaged 33.0 points against Cleveland last season. "Every game, it seems we're getting better."
Bryant had 27 points and Pau Gasol finished with 20 points and 14 rebounds Sunday as Los Angeles held the NBA's highest-scoring team 20.6 points below its season average on 36.0-percent shooting. The Lakers, who outrebounded the Knicks 61-42, are allowing an average of 90.5 points during a four-game winning streak.
"I think we can definitely win a championship with this type of defense," Jackson said.
The same cannot be said about the Cavaliers' defense -- or offense, for that matter.
Cleveland is allowing an average of 108.4 points in its last seven games, and has topped the 100-point mark just three times in its last 22.
Injuries are playing a big part in the Cavs' struggles. The team learned prior to Sunday's 108-100 loss to Phoenix that leading rebounder and top interior defender Anderson Varejao will miss the rest of the season with a torn ankle tendon. Cleveland is already without guard Daniel Gibson (ankle) and forward Leon Powe (knee surgery).
Against the Suns, the banged-up Cavs were led by rookie Manny Harris' career-best 27 points and J.J. Hickson's 23 points and career-high 17 rebounds. Cleveland had a chance to end its slide, but was outscored 27-19 in the fourth quarter.
"We continue to play positive basketball, but we have those lulls," said Antwan Jamison, who is averaging 27.8 points and 6.5 rebounds in his last four games.
The Cavs are in the midst of their second 10-game losing streak in a 21-game span. They haven't dropped 11 in a row since a 15-game skid Nov. 8-Dec. 2, 2002.
Cleveland has also lost 16 consecutive road games, the team's longest road losing streak since a franchise-worst 21-game slide to close the 2002-03 season. This stop at Staples Center marks the middle game of a five-game trip.