The Lakers' LeBron James returns from injury just in time for NBA playoff run
By Melissa Rohlin
FOX Sports NBA Writer
Anthony Davis was awoken from his pregame nap Friday afternoon when his phone started buzzing.
It was time to celebrate: LeBron James was finally returning after missing 20 games because of a high ankle sprain, marking the longest absence of his 18-season career.
The news took everyone by surprise, including Davis. Even though James and Davis are close friends, James hadn't told him that he was planning to play that evening. But after testing his ankle Friday morning, James decided he was finally ready to make his comeback.
The night, however, didn't go as planned.
The Lakers fell at home to the Sacramento Kings 110-106 in what Lakers coach Frank Vogel called a "very disappointing" loss. James, Davis and Andre Drummond, whom the team acquired in late March, struggled to find any sort of rhythm in their first game together.
Still, James had an opportunity for some late-game heroics. WIth 2.7 seconds left and the Lakers down 108-106, James attempted a go-ahead 3-pointer, but his legs didn't have quite enough power after carrying him for 32 minutes — and the ball clanked off the front of the rim.
But the loss was a win for the Lakers, who finally have their team back intact. The problem is there are only nine games for them to figure things out before the playoffs begin.
James acknowledged that it's "so weird" that there are only nine games left, adding that it has been "a long, super-quick season." That's the perfect contradiction to describe a 72-game stretch played amidst the strangest of circumstances and mostly without fans — and it's about to be over in a flash.
At least the defending champions have the recent past to draw upon as they round the corner. They won last year's title after a nearly 100-day stay in a bubble in what James has called the toughest challenge of his career.
James believes that will help the team this time around — but only so much.
"We have a lot of experience in the postseason, know how to make a run, know how to handle adversity, and we know we can always hang our hats on that," he 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. Gotta go out and do it, too."
For his first game back, James had a solid performance, finishing with 16 points on 6-for-12 shooting, eight rebounds, seven assists and five turnovers. That's not bad for someone who hadn't played 5-on-5 or done any contact drills since he sustained the ankle injury against the Atlanta Hawks on March 20.
James said his wind was "pretty good." As for his ankle, he acknowledged it was "a little tight at times."
Regardless, he needed to be on the court. When I asked James how it was for him mentally to be away from the court for the longest period of his career, he didn't hold back.
"It was horrible, honestly, for me," he said, adding that he was more stressed than he'd "ever been."
While sidelined, James became an extra coach of sorts for the Lakers. He closely watched games, sharing observations with teammates. He also imagined he was on the court himself, acting out in his head how he would've handled certain situations.
When he wasn't with his team, he poured himself into his individual workouts, doing everything in his power to hasten his return.
"That’s just who I am," he said, adding that he spent a lot more time on rehab and treatment than sleeping. "That’s all I’ve been doing is having an urgency to get back and play. I knew I wasn’t going to get back to 100 percent. It’s impossible. I don’t think I will ever get back to 100 percent in my career."
Before James was injured, the Lakers had the second-best record in the Western Conference. Now they've fallen to fifth place, with a record of 36-27. They're only a half-game ahead of the sixth-place Dallas Mavericks (35-27) and one game ahead of the seventh-place Portland Trail Blazers (35-28).
The Lakers would very much like to avoid the play-in tournament, which will include the seventh through 10th seeds. For that to happen, though, they have to reverse course. They've lost five of their past six games while dealing with a lot of moving pieces, including integrating back James and Davis, who missed 30 games because of a right calf strain and tendinosis before returning April 22. They also recently added two new players in Drummond and Ben McLemore.
Davis said the team's bumps and bruises aren't fun, but at least the team is getting them over with at this time.
"I’d rather go through it now," said Davis, who had 22 points and 11 rebounds Friday. "That way, going into the playoffs, we’re back adjusted to one another, we’re accustomed to each other, and we’re rolling. So even though it sucks to lose, I’d rather find our way now, find our path now with each other than have to go through it in the playoffs."
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After they opened the season with a 21-6 record, it seemed as though the Lakers would breeze their way back to competing for another title.
But then life happened. Now their path is anything but easy.
James said playing Friday was "a little stress relief" for him. But in order for him to feel like his old self, some things need to change.
"If we get some wins," he said, "I’ll be stress-free."
Melissa Rohlin is an NBA writer for FOX Sports. She has previously covered the league for Sports Illustrated, the Los Angeles Times, the Bay Area News Group and the San Antonio Express-News. Follow her on Twitter @melissarohlin.