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Back when he made his first return from a high right ankle sprain after missing the previous 20 games, Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James revealed, that "I’ll never get back to 100% in my career." But after playing two games, then missing an additional six to heal emerging soreness, James returned for Saturday’s 122-115 win over the Indiana Pacers with clarity both on his comments and on his health.
"Whatever I say gets blown out context," James said. "What I was saying is that as soon as I step foot on the NBA floor for the first time, I went to 99.9%. You don’t ever feel as great as you felt the first time you stepped out there. So I was saying I would never be able to get to 100%. That time has passed me. But for me playing at a high level, I can always do that and be at 99."
Back when the Lakers experienced struggles with their performances and injuries, James criticized the NBA for implementing a play-in tournament during its condensed 72-game season. James argued that "whoever came up with that (expletive) needs to be fired." But with the Lakers (41-30) still facing uncertainty on whether they will begin the playoffs as a sixth seed or participate in a play-in tournament as a seventh seed, James shifted his thoughts on the varying scenarios.
"Let the chips fall where they may," James said. "Simple as that. We’re ready to go."
The Lakers enter their regular-season finale against the New Orleans Pelicans (31-40) with various unanswered questions.
The first: Who will play?
Lakers coach Frank Vogel said that the medical staff has not yet decided whether James, Anthony Davis (left adductor tightness) and Dennis Schroder (health and safety protocols) will play after appearing in Saturday’s game amid various ailments. James said he felt "pretty good" en route to 24 points, eight assists and seven rebounds in 28 minutes following his six-game absence. Davis said he "felt pretty great" en route to 28 points, 10 rebounds and five assists in 36 minutes after sitting out of the past two games. And Schroder said he is "feeling great" after posting 13 points on a team-imposed minutes restriction (30).
"It’s still going to take time until it gets to 100%, but for most of the game he was in control. He looked like his old self," Vogel said. "We just proceeded like the ankle wasn’t an issue. If it became one, they would let me know. The medical team would let me know. That point never came. We’re just proceeding like he can handle the minutes we’re going to give him. If something flares up or anything like that, then they’ll communicate that with me. That did not happen today."
The second: Who will the Lakers play after their regular-season finale?
To secure the No. 6 seed and face the Denver Nuggets in the first round, the Lakers have to win Sunday against the Pelicans and the Portland Trail Blazers would have to lose against Denver. If neither of those scenarios happen, the Lakers will fall to No. 7 and face either the Golden State Warriors or Memphis Grizzlies.
"We’re ready to play whatever game," Davis said. "If it’s playoffs as a sixth seed or we have to play the play-in as a seventh seed, we don’t care. It’s not going to stop us one way or another which one we do. It doesn’t take our mind off our goal. It’s not going to give us any discouragement if we’re not in the top six. We don’t really care. We control what we can control."
Whether the Lakers’ optimism translates into success largely depends on James’ health. James described himself as taking "a complete 180" after feeling tightness at halftime in his first two games against Sacramento (April 30) and Toronto (May 2). Since that time, James said he completed "a lot of work," which included participating in scrimmages in between games the past week.
"Being out in that Toronto game gave me a sense of where I was physically with my ankle. But I needed that and needed that test to see where I was then to go where I needed to go," James said. "Today was another opportunity to see where I’m at. I still got some more room for improvement as far as my ankle, my mobility and my strength. But I’m 10 times better than I was in that Toronto game and I believe I can get five to 10 times better in the future."
Because of his improved health, James appeared more comfortable with his movement. After the Lakers went on a four-minute, 29-second scoring drought in the fourth quarter, James closed the game out with a 3-pointer, a running jumper and a putback.
So even if the 36-year-old James might never fully feel healthy for the remainder of his career, he stressed that does not mean he won’t be able to navigate through his latest ailment.
"Once you get into the league and you start playing multiple games and you have the career that I’ve had and you have the minutes that I’ve had and the longevity I’ve had, as far as 100%, you never feel 100%," James said. "It’s actually impossible. If that’s the case, I’d play until 60, 70. It just doesn’t happen that way. I should’ve clarified that and obviously people ran with it."
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: LeBron James bullish about health, Lakers in play-in tournament