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(Reuters) - LeBron James may take on a heavier workload down the stretch to make up for the absence of All-Star Kevin Love and the added wear and tear could prove costly in the Cleveland Cavaliers' quest to repeat as NBA champions.
Love will miss six weeks after having arthroscopic surgery on his left knee on Tuesday and while his injury will not sink the Cavaliers it could cost them the Eastern Conference's top seed and make their road to the NBA Finals a little tougher.
It's the latest injury for a Cavaliers team already playing without injured starting shooting guard JR Smith, but not a situation the team are unfamiliar with.
"It's just our road, every season one of our key guys gets hurt," James told reporters before his team's shootaround in Minnesota, where the Cavaliers play later on Tuesday.
"This year has probably been the worst out of all years, having our starting 2 guard out for so long and then having our All-Star power forward out for an extended period of time. Just next man up."
The Cavaliers (37-16) have a two-game lead over a surging Boston in the East and might need to lean on James much more if they want to lock up the top seed, which would guarantee them homecourt advantage until at least the NBA Finals should they get that far.
But having James healthy for the playoffs is the team's top priority and likely only hope of winning a championship, which means they will have to quickly sort out how to get by during Love's absence.
"We can't run LeBron into the ground because Kevin's out," said Cavaliers head coach Tyronn Lue. "Guys have to step up and be ready to play."
James, 32, is already averaging a team-high 37.6 minutes per game this season for a Cavaliers team that can't seem to get by for long stretches without the four-time NBA Most Valuable Player on the court.
So, with 29 games left in the regular season, the Cavaliers may ultimately decide to capitulate the East's top seed in favour of keeping James fresh for the playoffs.
But James, who has sat out only three games this season, said any extra workload would not be a burden.
"I'll rest when I retire," said James. "As long as I'm in the lineup, we've got a chance. We're good. Kev is out for an extended period of time. JR's been out. But I'm in the lineup, obviously we've got a chance against anybody."
Reporting by Frank Pingue in Toronto; Editing by Andrew Both