LeBron James to return tonight vs. Clippers after 17-game absence

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LOS ANGELES — LeBron James is back.

After missing 17 games with a strained groin — during which time the Lakers went 6-11 and slid out of a playoff position in the West — LeBron will return to the starting lineup for the Lakers Thursday night against the Clippers.

“He’s going to give it a go tonight,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said pregame, confirming reports in the media.

Walton added there is not a minutes limit but, “I’m sure his conditioning isn’t up to par where it normally is, so we’ll keep a close eye on him.”

The Lakers need him back — they are 7.2 point points per 100 possessions better when he is on the court this season, which would translate to about 19 wins better (stats via Cleaning The Glass). The 26-25 Lakers are the current nine-seed in the West, trailing the Clippers by two games (making Thursday’s game a big swing game). After this game the Lakers have 7-of-8 on the road, maybe their toughest stretch of the schedule all season and a few weeks that could determine their playoff chances.

“The added relief is just having him back on the court,” Walton said of the timing of LeBron’s return. “We just got to get through tonight and make sure we’re good, we’re just excited to have him back.

LeBron was a full participant in the last two Lakers’ practices, Walton said. While the Lakers officially listed LeBron as “out” yesterday, Clipper coach Doc Rivers said he never bought it.

“This was the worst-kept secret ever… Maybe I’m just not a trusting soul,” Rivers said.

When Rivers was asked about Avery Bradley‘s status, Rivers took a little dig at the Lakers saying he didn’t expect Bradley to go but “just being honest, we didn’t list him as out.”