March 16, 2017

CLEVELAND (AP) The defending NBA champions are slowly returning to health.

Cleveland Cavaliers forward Kevin Love, who had surgery on his left knee last month, will return to the starting lineup against the Utah Jazz on Thursday night.

Love had surgery Feb. 14 and was originally expected to miss six weeks. The Cavaliers are 7-6 since he was injured. Love is averaging 20 points and 11.1 rebounds, his best season since joining Cleveland in 2014.

''He worked hard every day,'' Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue said. ''He's ready to go. That's good for us being back two weeks early.''

General manager David Griffin said Tuesday he anticipated Love would return on the team's road trip that begins Saturday. The four-time All-Star was cleared by the medical staff after participating in drills Tuesday and Wednesday.

Lue said Love will be on a minutes restriction and likely won't play in back-to-back games for the time being.

''It's going to take him some time,'' Lue said. ''We expect that. Anytime you come off an injury, I think mentally it's going to take some time to know he can do some of the things he's capable of doing, timing-wise, conditioning-wise. We're going to be patient. We're happy he's there.''

Cleveland has struggled on the boards without Love, who has also dealt with back issues. The Cavaliers were outrebounded 52-38 in Sunday's loss to Houston.

''His defensive rebounding, for one,'' Lue said when asked what the Cavaliers missed the most while Love was out.

''Second thing is, just when we get those leads and get jump shot happy, we're able to throw the ball in the post and slow the game down. Either he's going to score or get to the free throw line.''

The Cavaliers lead Boston by two games for the top spot in the Eastern Conference despite dealing with several injuries.

Kyle Korver, who has missed the past five games with a sore left foot, is expected to return during the trip. J.R. Smith, who missed 36 games with a broken right thumb, returned last week and will rejoin the starting lineup soon.

''I'm excited to finally start getting our guys back,'' Lue said. ''To still be No. 1 in the East after going through all the injuries, we're in good shape.''

The Cavaliers said before Thursday's game forward Derrick Williams is out with a right quad contusion.

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