LOS ANGELES-After missing 17 games, the story of the night at Staples Center as the Los Angeles Lakers played visitor against the Los Angeles Clippers, LeBron James brought his usual bag of basketball tricks to the court. James, looking a bit rusty in the first half, shook that off to score 24 points, grab 14 rebounds, and dish nine dimes to his teammates.
It was LeBron being LeBron as James, averaging 27 points a game this season, guided the Lakers to a 123-120 overtime win against the Clippers.
“I’m feeling great right now,” James said. “I’m definitely ecstatic about being back out there with my guys and getting a good road win against a team that was climbing in the playoff race. Being out five weeks, I wish I could click my shoes together and be home in my bed right now. It was great to be back out there.”
Not only did James play, but he also played extensively, going for 40 minutes, including logging time in the extra period. That is putting in work. James, who injured his groin back on Christmas Day in a game the Lakers played against the Golden State Warriors, said except for having to catch his breath on occasions, he felt okay.
“The groin feels pretty good right now,” said James. “I haven’t played an NBA game in over a month. I already knew that there was going to be a problem. I already knew my wind wasn’t where I wanted it to be, my timing on the shots –I missed a couple of layups that I’m accustomed to make. I had a couple of turnovers that was out of character. I’m looking forward to see how I feel tomorrow. It’s going to be a tell-tale sign of all the rehab, work, and everything I’ve been putting in for the past five weeks.”
James started the game extremely slow, recording just two points and one assist in the first quarter. The second quarter was just as unnoteworthy for James, who managed to tally three points and three assists in the period. But his presence on the floor, of course, was a big difference in team energy and ball movement for the Lakers.
Lakers guard Josh Hart said things flow much differently when James is on the court.
“You’re always in good hands. [LeBron James] made the right plays, he got guys open, he finished when he had to,” Hart said. “He’s just so smart. He’s a good veteran player. He gets guys in their spots to get easy buckets. His basketball IQ is just through the roof. When you got guys like that out there, it’s amazing.”
Brandon Ingram is likely to be the chief beneficiary with James returning. With James and Rajon Rondo interchanging roles as the Lakers main ballhandler from time to time, Ingram was comfortable going to back to doing work in the low post and making plays off the ball. At least for one night, it worked out pretty well for Ingram and the Lakers. Ingram scored 11 of his 19 points in the first half.
Though he scored only 10 points in the contest, Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma sounded excited about having the team’s point forward back in the swing of things again.
“Anytime you play with a player of [LeBron James’s] caliber, you’re going to have the extra boost in confidence out there,” Kuzma said. “I think we saw that tonight. We made a lot of big plays, [Rajon Rondo] did, so on and so forth.”
James finished the night making just 9 of the 22 shots he attempted from the field. What he showed in rust, however, he made up in will and determination. Scoring just five total points in the first half, James went to work in the next three sessions to drop 17 points. Lakers head coach Luke Walton James changes every dynamic, including the Lakers’ play-calling.
“We have different play-calls when he’s playing and when he’s not,” Walton said. “Since I’ve coached him, he’s is the most unselfish player I’ve ever been around, let alone a superstar that unselfish. The good thing about calling the plays for him is that if other people are open, he’s going to throw the ball to them and that’s what we want. Our guys did a nice job of being unselfish. We talk about being a selfless team all the time, we were doing that tonight. [Brandon Ingram], who had come off his career high, had another great night. He was playmaking all over the place early and got his scoring rhythm going. It was nice to see the whole team just play for each other.”