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Los Angeles Lakers' LeBron James returning from 20-game absence Friday vs. Sacramento Kings

Mark Medina, USA TODAY
·4 min read
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Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James will play in Friday's game against the Sacramento Kings at Staples Center after missing the past 20 games because of a right high ankle sprain, the team announced.

"You have to expect some rust," Lakers coach Frank Vogel said beforehand. "You have to expect some situations where he doesn’t quite have his legs under him. But it’s the nature of this type of season where guys are having to return from injury and work their way back into shape in game."

Lakers forward Anthony Davis also dealt with rust in the past four games after missing the previous 30 because of a strained left calf. In Davis' first game against Dallas last week, Vogel played Davis only 17 minutes in the first half before increasing his workload in another game against Dallas (21), Orlando (31) and Washington (31).

Because James' injury is not considered as serious, Vogel said "there’s not going to be a hard minutes restriction on LeBron tonight other than to be responsible and try to keep his minutes reasonable in his first game back."

Anthony Davis returned to the Lakers' lineup last week. Now, LeBron James is returning on Friday.
Anthony Davis returned to the Lakers' lineup last week. Now, LeBron James is returning on Friday.

James' return seems somewhat surprising for two reasons. The Lakers had originally ruled James out on Thursday evening and the team had offered no details about his progress other than that he would rehab with the team on its last four-game trip.

Vogel declined to detail the specifics of James' progress, and whether he has practiced or scrimmaged against teammates. But Vogel said James completed an individual workout Friday morning at the team's practice facility. Then, Vogel said he told James that he "gave him full support and if he wanted to take more time." But James decided otherwise.

"He’s worked extremely hard and extremely diligently to get his body back and right," Vogel said. "He thought coming off this trip that it’s time to return to the lineup. So we’re excited to have him back."

The Lakers (36-26) are in fifth place in the Western Conference and have slim leads on the Dallas Mavericks (35-27) and the Portland Trail Blazers (34-28). If the Lakers fall to seventh place, they would have to participate in the play-in tournament to secure a playoff spot.

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The Lakers have not expressed concern about lacking home-court advantage even in the first round because of the team's optimism with how James will fare during his return.

A handful of outside medical experts had also conveyed optimism to USA TODAY Sports about James' return because of the nature of James injury and how well he takes care of his body.

The Lakers have also maintained that James' return had nothing to do with their record.

"It’s not about anxiousness. It’s about his health and whether his ankle felt well enough to play," Vogel said. "That’s when he was going to play. That’s been the plan all along. That’s where we’re at."

Nonetheless, the Lakers have struggled without James. They have gone 8-14 during his absences. They also have gone 1-3 since Davis returned. And suddenly the Lakers have only 10 regular-season games to address a few areas before the playoffs staff.

Can James shed his rust? Can he establish chemistry with newly acquired center Andre Drummond? Can Vogel shuffle and possibly tighten the rest of his rotation?

"On the court stuff and that type of chemistry is going to be imperfect with these few games," Vogel said. "It’s the nature of the situation we’re in with these injuries and Drummond coming mid season. We just have to compete through it."

Does Vogel feel comfortable that the Lakers can address these issues before the playoffs start on May 22?

"My comfort level is it’s not enough. Not in any way, shape or form," Vogel said. "But it’s just the nature of what we’re in. We have to make the best of it and compete through it. Come playoff time, we’ll be ready."

James will play in front of fans for the first time since playing Brooklyn on March 10, 2020, shortly before the NBA suspended its season because of the coronavirus pandemic. The Lakers have since welcomed back a limited number of fans for their past three home games before going on a four-game trip.

Follow USA TODAY NBA writer Mark Medina on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Lakers' LeBron James will return for Friday's game vs. Kings