LOS ANGELES — There was unquestionably rust.
“The first quarter was just kind of a feel out quarter to see how my groin would react,” LeBron James said of his return to the court after a 17-game absence due to a strained groin, a stretch where the Lakers went 6-11 and fell out of playoff position. “I didn’t really run as hard as I’m accustomed to on breaks. I had a couple of drives, just trying to mentally get into it….
“I’m not there all the way, as far as physically. My timing, like I (said during a postgame television interview) is 80 percent right now, but it felt good to be 80 and be back on the floor and put on a Lakers’ uniform again.”
That 80 percent was enough to have a true LeBron effect — he settled them. In the fourth quarter Thursday night, the Clippers went on a 7-0 run that cut the lead down to six. LeBron stepped up and hit a three. It was like that all night.
More importantly, the Laker halfcourt offense was just smoother, with better passing and spacing. When he sat during this game, the looks the Lakers got were more often difficult ones.
That LeBron effect turned into 24 points, 14 rebounds, and nine assists leading the Lakers to a 123-120 overtime win against the Clippers.
This was not only a big win because LeBron returned, but also because the Lakers have 7-of-8 on the road coming up (their toughest stretch of the schedule all season). Also because the Clippers are the team the Lakers are chasing for the final playoff spot in the West. With the win, the Lakers are just one game back of the eight seed Clippers.
The Laker halfcourt offense struggled with LeBron out since Christmas, it had a much better flow on Thursday (even with LeBron’s rust).
“He made the right plays, he got guys open, he finished when he had to,” Laker guard Josh Hart said. “He’s just so smart. He’s such a good veteran player. He gets guys in their spots to get easy buckets. His basketball IQ is just through the roof.”
LeBron also got some help — good Lance Stephenson showed up (you never know which one you will get), and he had 20 points off the bench plus hit 5-of-8 from three. Brandon Ingram added 19 on 12 shots.
The Clippers got 24 points from Lou Williams off the bench, and beyond that we saw their usual balanced attack — six other players were in double figures. However, late in games, the Clippers lacked someone beyond Williams they could count on to create and make plays. It led to sloppy offense.
The Lakers had no such questions, they knew who they wanted to run the offense through.
LeBron played 40 minutes — and the Lakers needed every one to get the win. But there’s a price for that.
“I’m not feeling particularly great right now,” LeBron said of his condition after the game….
“It’s a little bit of everything. The groin is a little sore right now, but I already knew that. I hadn’t played an NBA game in over a month, so I knew that was going to be a bit of a problem. My wind wasn’t going to be where I wanted it to be, the timing on my shots (was off)…
“I’m looking forward to see how I feel tomorrow. It’s going to be a tell-tale sign of all the rehab, work, everything I’ve been putting in for the past five weeks.”
LeBron gets a day to rest, the Lakers are off on Friday but fly up to the Bay Area for a nationally televised game against the Warriors on Saturday. LeBron plans to suit up for that one — the playoffs have essentially started for the Lakers, they need to make a push to get in starting now, and he’s not going to sit out any longer.
“I love clothes. I love suits. But I didn’t come here to put on a suit every day, I came to put on a jersey,” LeBron said.