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(Reuters) - The return of the prodigal son to Cleveland is undergoing growing pains as LeBron James and the Cavaliers struggle to fulfill lofty National Basketball Association expectations.
Despite being crowned favorites to win the NBA title by Las Vegas oddsmakers after James announced his return to Cleveland in July, the Cavs slipped to 5-6 after their third loss in a row in falling to the Washington Wizards on Friday.
The season is young, but there is clearly work to be done to turn James, new Cavalier Kevin Love and guard Kyrie Irving into a force under rookie NBA coach David Blatt.
"No one feels sorry for us," four-time league most valuable player James told reporters after scoring 22 points in the 91-78 loss. "We have to figure out what needs to be done to win."
The points total was the lowest of the season for the lackluster Cavs, who shot 36 percent, committed 19 turnovers and seemed to be moving in a lower gear than their hosts.
"I'm concerned about everything right now," coach Blatt said.
"This is the same team that a week ago, 10 days ago, was scoring 120 points a game," Blatt said. "We're not a different group of people, and we're not a different team, but we're just playing in the dark right now."
Washington center Marcin Gortat was equally blunt. “They were just sloppy,” he told the Washington Post. "You realized that they don’t feel comfortable doing what they were doing.”
James left Cleveland, where he started his NBA career after high school in Akron, Ohio, in 2010 with the aim of winning championships as he formed a Big Three on the Miami Heat with fellow free agents Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh.
They got off to a rough start meshing under young coach Erik Spoelstra, going 10-9 in their first 19 games before finding their stride and reaching the NBA Finals. They then won two titles before another runner-up finish last season.
“What helps me out is I’ve been through it before," said James, who is averaging 25.5 points.
"At the same time, I’m a winner, I want to win, and I want to win now,” he added. “It’s not tomorrow, it’s not down the line, I want to win now."
Finding the formula may not be so easy this time as James joins 22-year-old Irving, the 2012 NBA Rookie of the Year and two-time All Star power forward Love, his teammate on the 2012 Olympic champion U.S. team who joined the Cavaliers from the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Love and Irving have never been to the playoffs, and this is the first time around the NBA for Blatt, who coached in Israel and Europe, and steered Russia to Olympic bronze in London.
Yet a special fire burns in James, determined to honor his home state and bring a championship to Cleveland, which has not seen a professional team triumph since the NFL's Cleveland Browns 50 years ago.
"Before anyone ever cared where I would play basketball, I was a kid from Northeast Ohio. It’s where I walked. It’s where I ran. It’s where I cried. It’s where I bled," James wrote in Sports Illustrated in announcing his return to Cleveland.
"I sometimes feel like I’m their son. Their passion can be overwhelming. But it drives me."
Reporting by Larry Fine in New York; Editing by Gene Cherry