His timing was off. His wind was short. Yet in a game key to the playoff race, LeBron James was clearly the most impactful player on the floor.
James returned from a five-week injury absence and pieced together a 24-point, 14-rebound, nine-assist performance to lead the Lakers to a 123-120 overtime victory over the LA Clippers.
“I’m like 80 percent right now,” James said. “But it felt good to be 80 and just to be back on the floor and put on a Lakers uniform again. That’s what it’s all about.”
Despite admitting that his conditioning wasn’t where he wanted it to be, James still ground through 40 minutes for the Lakers (27-25), who gained a crucial win against a Clippers team now one game ahead of them in the standings.
The Lakers went just 6-11 when LeBron was injured, falling from fourth place in the West to ninth. Yet his return against the Clippers (28-24) was ideal timing, as the Lakers next embark on a crucial five-game road trip.
“We’ve got a tough, tough schedule ahead of us,” coach Luke Walton said. “None of these games are make-or-break types of things, but it’s been unfortunate with the amount of injuries we’ve had that it’s gotten to that time now. Thirty games left now, and we really have to turn up and learn from everything: all the adversity we’ve been through as a group.”
LeBron’s teammates also rose to the moment. Brandon Ingram continued his stretch of efficient scoring with 19 points. Rajon Rondo provided a bit of everything with 14 points, 13 rebounds and seven assists.
But the biggest boost came from Lance “Born Ready” Stephenson, who put up 20 points with five 3-pointers (punctuating each of them with his patented air guitar celebration).
“We stuck together, knowing every night it could be a different person who’s going to give us that lift,” James said. “Tonight it was Born Ready. He gave us that lift off the bench, shot the ball extremely well from the 3-point line.”
Yet it wasn’t easy for the Lakers, who entered the fourth quarter up by a dozen but surrendered 37 points, including seven unanswered in the final 1:49 to force overtime.
However, LeBron exhibited full control from there, as all 11 of the Lakers’ OT points came from his scoring or playmaking.
When the Clippers tied the game with 1:18 left in the extra period, James was the one who answered the call with a clutch fadeaway. Then he found Stephenson in transition for an and-1 layup to ice it.
With the key win captured, LeBron didn’t need much else to complete his night.
“After being out five weeks I’m feeling it right now,” James laughed. “I wish I could click my shoes together and be home right now in my bed.”
The Lakers improved to 21-14 when James plays. … The Lakers hit 28 free throws on an 80.0 percent clip, while the Clippers made only 14 on 53.8 percent. … Lou Williams (24 points) and Tobias Harris (15 points, eight rebounds, eight assists) led the Clippers.