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LOS ANGELES — LeBron James paused his pregame free throw routine and stood still just inside the foul line on Friday when he flexed both arms, tilted his head back and let out a guttural roar.
After the longest injury-related layoff of his career — sitting out 20 games in six weeks because of a high ankle sprain to his right leg — James was indeed back.
Fittingly, he found himself with the ball in his hands with a chance to win the game, but his 3-pointer with 2.7 seconds remaining missed and the Los Angeles Lakers lost 110-106 after the Sacramento Kings tacked on a pair of free throws.
The miss marred an otherwise solid return, as James finished with 16 points on 6-of-12 shooting, 8 rebounds and 7 assists with 2 steals and 5 turnovers in 32 minutes. His plus-minus of plus-5 was the best of any Lakers starter.
“For my first game in six weeks, I felt OK,” James said. “As far as my wind, I felt pretty good. As far as my ankle, it was a little tight at times, obviously. … But I came out unscathed and pretty good. So it’s a good start.”
As James shared postgame pleasantries with Kings players, a fan’s shout could be heard from the stands: “We love you, LeBron!”
It was reminiscent of the moments before tipoff when James was the last Lakers player announced in the starting lineup. His scream was matched soon after by a cacophony of cheers from the couple of thousand fans in attendance. The Lakers’ game against the Kings didn’t just mark James’ comeback, it was also the first time he played in front of the home crowd since the coronavirus pandemic put the 2019-20 season on pause and the Lakers went on to win the championship in the Orlando, Florida, restart.
The Lakers, losing for the fifth time in six games with the playoffs fast approaching, look far from a title team at the moment.
“It’s only nine games left,” James said. “It’s just been … it’s been a hell of a season, obviously. … But we look forward to the challenge. It is what it is. This is the season, and we’ve got to make the most out of it.”
Anthony Davis said he wasn’t aware James was going to make his return Friday until he woke up from his pregame nap and Montrezl Harrell texted a meme of a “bunch of people dancing” to the team’s group chat, accompanied by a tweet from ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski breaking the news.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel said he encouraged James to take as much time as he needed before returning when James went through a “final test” at the practice facility Friday morning. James said he always felt a duty to get healthy and wasn’t compelled to rush the process just because L.A. was struggling in the standings.
“It’s been urgency for me to get back ever since I got injured. So that’s just who I am,” he said. “You guys could have seen the logging of the minutes and hours per day that I was doing as far as rehab and treatment, it was a lot more than I slept. So over the last six weeks, that’s all I’ve been doing, is having an urgency to get back and play.”
Then James uttered a line he has used before in his career to describe the cumulative effect that injuries have over time on a player.
“I knew I wasn’t going to get back to 100%. It’s impossible,” he said. “I don’t think I will ever get back to 100% in my career.”
While Vogel said he expected some rust when asked about James before the game, James, 36, mostly stood out for his acumen, not because of any atrophy — at least in the early going.
With the clock ticking down in the first quarter, James called for a clearout and drove from beyond the 3-point line to the cup, showing his signature burst as he scored on a double-clutch layup with 1.9 seconds left while being fouled by the Kings’ Maurice Harkless.
Then he went into Lakers legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar‘s bag in the second quarter and scored on a sweeping hook shot to tie the score at 34-34. The bucket brought L.A. all the way back after it trailed by as many as 15 in the opening frame.
Early in the fourth quarter, with Sacramento having cut L.A.’s 11-point lead down to seven, James backed Harkless down and scored on a step-back, fadeaway jump shot, displaying precision in his footwork and a shooter’s touch on his hoist that belied his month-and-a-half absence.
After a quick rest, during which the Kings came all the way back to tie it up, James checked back into the game with 5 minutes, 16 seconds remaining for the homestretch.
It was a mixed bag for the 18-year veteran from there.
James turned the ball over with 3:54 left, losing his dribble in the face of routine pressure from Terence Davis on the perimeter, and then followed that by turning it over on the Lakers’ next possession, trying to thread a pass to Davis in the corner. That allowed the Kings to go up 101-97.
James hit a 3 with 1:50 remaining to cut the Kings’ lead from five points to two, but he airballed a 3 with 1:17 left that could have given L.A. the lead.
While James left the arena with the feeling that comes from a loss, it was still better than not being able to even play.
“It was horrible, honestly, for me. I was more stressful than I’ve ever been,” James said. “But I’m happy I’m playing now, so a little stress relief.”
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