Lakers ready for play-off push: James

Star shows little sign of rust after long layoff as he scores team-high 24pts to lead side past Clippers

LOS ANGELES • Not being out on the floor represented the "toughest stretch" of LeBron James' career, whose happy place has always been a National Basketball Association (NBA) court.

Although he made a triumphant return after 36 days on the sidelines, having not played since suffering a groin injury on Christmas Day, he admitted it would take him "a little while to get my rhythm back".

The 15-time All-Star breathed new life into the floundering Los Angeles Lakers with a team-high 24 points to lead his team past the LA Clippers 123-120 in overtime at the Staples Centre on Thursday.

He showed little rustiness despite the longest absence of his 16-year career as he played 40 minutes, grabbed 14 rebounds, delivered nine assists and scored the go-ahead basket with 1min 15sec left.

But "The King" still felt he needed more time to get up to speed, telling reporters afterwards he was only at "80 per cent right now".

He said: "I was good enough to feel confident to just keep pushing throughout the game. I want to see how my body reacts tomorrow.

"That's the tell-tale sign for me is how my body feels after having to play 40 minutes unfortunately, with the overtime."

  • Assists for LeBron James, who also had 24 points and 14 rebounds but fell just short of a triple-double.

Yet as far as his teammates are concerned, a half-fit James is infinitely better than an absent James after going into a tailspin without him, dropping from fourth to ninth in the West after a 6-11 run.

Calling him "the greatest player on the planet", centre Tyson Chandler, who scored four points, hailed the 34-year-old James for "bringing his superpowers".

Guard Rajon Rondo, whose 14-game absence coincided with James' injury spell, benefited from having the team's "quarterback" back as he added 14 points and 13 rebounds.

LeBron James being fouled by the Clippers' Mike Scott in the first half at Staples Centre on Thursday. The Los Angeles Lakers forward made a triumphant return after 36 days on the sidelines, leading his team to a 123-120 overtime win over the Clipper
LeBron James being fouled by the Clippers' Mike Scott in the first half at Staples Centre on Thursday. The Los Angeles Lakers forward made a triumphant return after 36 days on the sidelines, leading his team to a 123-120 overtime win over the Clippers. PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

However, James shrugged off the praise, claiming "it just felt great to get back out there", having "worked my a** off to get back to this point".

He added: "This is where I can shut out everything, be out there with my guys, command my guys, and get a win on the road.

"We got stops and we made some timely shots. Everybody was huge. It is going to be different guys every night for our team. We are starting to get our depth back."

Their roster strength was telling as guard Lance Stephenson contributed 20 points, while forward Brandon Ingram had 19 to offset a 24-point showing from the Clippers' Lou Williams and 17 from fellow guard Patrick Beverley.

And the Lakers (27-25) will need more of their rotation players to step up ahead of a gruelling run of games on the road, starting with today's visit to Golden State.

James told ESPN's Dave McMenamin that with the team having slipped out of play-off contention while he was sidelined, they had one message - that they "were all ready to make this push".

He said: "We're on the road for the whole month of February. We've got two home games. So if you want to make a push, why not make it on the road?

"That's the best time where you can come together as a team when you're on the road and it's just us. So let's do it."

Their next four games after the Warriors clash will see the Lakers travel to Indiana, Boston, Philadelphia and Atlanta before the All-Star Game on Feb 17.

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 02, 2019, with the headline 'Lakers ready for play-off push: James'. Print Edition | Subscribe