Lakers’ LeBron James returns from injury, but ‘I don’t think I’ll ever get back to 100%’

It took LeBron James six weeks to heal his high right ankle sprain, and at 36 years old in his 18th NBA season, the Los Angeles Lakers star suggested he will still have fights with Father Time.

“I know getting back to 100% is impossible. I’ll never get back to 100% in my career,” James said. “But I felt comfortable where I knew I could get on the floor and help my team win.”

James fell short of accomplishing that goal in Friday’s 110-106 loss to the Sacramento Kings.

He missed a potential game-winning 3-pointer with 2.7 seconds remaining and recorded five of the Lakers’ 21 turnovers. After finishing with 16 points on 6-of-12 shooting, eight rebounds, seven assists and two steals in 32 minutes, James was honest about his ankle (“a little tight at times”), his conditioning (“pretty good”) and his overall performance (“okay”).

James’ return coincided with the Lakers (36-27) holding only a ½ game lead over the Dallas Mavericks (35-27) for the No. 5 playoff seed with nine regular season games left. After losing five of their last six games, the Lakers also have only a one-game cushion over the Portland Trail Blazers (35-28), who are ranked seventh in the Western Conference. If the Lakers fall to that, they would have to participate in a play-in tournament to reach the postseason.

LeBron James returned to the Los Angeles Lakers lineup Friday night against the Sacramento Kings after recovering from an ankle injury. (Photo: Robert Hanashiro, USA TODAY Sports)

“Even though we don’t want to lose, we do want to take a step in the right direction every time we step on the floor and gain some momentum going into the playoffs. But it doesn’t really matter where we are,” Lakers forward Anthony Davis said. “We know how confident we are in ourselves. We know what the team is capable of. We know that once we reach the playoffs, it’s a different story.”

Part of the Lakers’ optimism stems from James’ return, which he said had nothing to do with the team’s standing. He maintained he felt ready to return from a 20-game absence despite being confined to conditioning drills and “a bunch of individual workouts” as opposed to any formal practices and scrimmages. That’s because James shared that he spent his time rehabbing “a lot more than I slept.”

“It was horrible, honestly, for me,” James said of his absence. “I was more stressful than I’ve ever been.”

It was the most time James has missed in his career because of injuries. “I’m happy I’m playing now,” James said.

James showed rust. In the first quarter, He threw a pass that almost hit a referee before going out of bounds. James committed two late-game turnovers as the Lakers trailed by double digits. And he missed an open 3-pointer that could have been the game-winning shot.

But James also made some immediate impact. He looked mostly crisp with his passing. He finished at the rim at the end of the first quarter — testing his ability to jump off his right ankle. He scored on a hook shot in the second quarter and a fadeaway in the fourth. He also threw a lob to recently acquired center Andre Drummond.  

“I thought he looked great,” Lakers coach Frank Vogel said. “I was very encouraged with how he looked.”

If only Vogel could say the same thing about the team’s performance.

Before the game, he admitted feeling uneasy about having only three weeks of regular season games left for James to shed his rust, establish chemistry with Drummond and iron out rotations for the rest of the season. Therefore, Vogel anticipated the remaining nine games “will be a little bumpy.”

“It’s been a hell of a season. Everything feels so rushed,” James said of the NBA’s condensed 72-game schedule. “There’s a game every other day or a game back to back. You can have as many as four or five games in a week. It’s been a long super quick season. How much can we make out of these nine games? I’m not sure.”

Yet, the Lakers maintained optimism, partly because of James' return and that they experienced some similarities during last season’s restart in the bubble.

Just like now, the Lakers dealt with a long layoff and needing to establish chemistry while going 3-5 in the team’s seed-in games.

Unlike now, the Lakers dealt with that long layoff mostly because of not playing or practicing for three months. Then, the Lakers had practices and scrimmages to reestablish chemistry before the season restart in late July. Now, the Lakers have none of that while trying to integrate two stars returning from injury (James, Davis) and two recently acquired players (Drummond, Ben McLemore).

“We have a lot of experience with the postseason and how to make a run and handle adversity,” James said. “Will it result in wins? That’s for us. The game is played in between the four lines and not on experience or on paper and things of that nature. We got to go out and do it, too.”

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