LOS ANGELES — After being sidelined for almost five weeks because of a left groin injury, LeBron James decided to pull the trigger and return Thursday — even though he knew he wasn’t 100 percent.
He mulled over the decision until about an hour before the Lakers faced the Clippers, ultimately deciding to return to the court after missing 17 consecutive games, the most he’s missed because of an injury during his 16-year NBA career.
“I looked at my guy, and I said, ‘Let’s give it a shot,'” James said.
James, 34, went on to flirt with a triple-double, finishing with 24 points on 9-of-22 shooting, 14 rebounds and nine assists in just over 40 minutes in the Lakers’ 123-120 overtime win.
But the performance drained him, both mentally and physically. While standing in front of a large group of reporters late Thursday night, he acknowledged that he didn’t have much left.
“After being out five weeks, I’m not feeling it right now,” James said. “I wish I could click my shoes together and be home right now in my bed.”
James said he was operating at only around 80 percent against the Clippers. But having the four-time MVP at partial speed made all the difference for the Lakers, who had slipped from fourth to ninth place in the Western Conference in James’ absence.
“He’s just so smart,” Josh Hart said of James. “He gets guys in their spots, gets them easy baskets. That’s what he does. His basketball IQ is just through the roof. When you’ve got guys like that out there, it’s just amazing.”
Five Lakers other than James finished in double figures: Kyle Kuzma (10 points), Brandon Ingram (19 points), Rajon Rondo (14 points), Lance Stephenson (20 points) and JaVale McGee (11 points).
James started out a bit shaky, shooting 2-of-7 from the field in the first half. But he improved as the game progressed, leading his team in scoring in both the fourth quarter (nine points) and overtime (four points).
There were impressive fadeaways over the outstretched hands of defenders and powerful putback layups — but James said he always felt a step slow.
“I’m not there all the way as far as physically and with my timing,” James said.
Even though his groin was sore and he was upset at himself about a few missed layups and four turnovers, James was overcome with a deep sense of relief Thursday. The last five weeks were very tough on him.
“I probably had more negative moments personally than I did positive,” James said.
“But when you have a great support staff, it helps out a lot. There were times that I felt great, and then a day or two later, I didn’t feel so good. There were times that I thought I could come back faster and be back quicker than I came back now. But it just wasn’t reacting the right way, so I just had to be patient, which, you know, I’m not patient at all.”
Before this stretch, the longest an injury had sidelined James was nine games in 2014-15 with Cleveland. James suffered the groin injury Dec. 25 against Golden State.
“I’ve never been injured before like that,” James said. “I didn’t come here to sit on the bench. I love clothes. I love suits. But I didn’t come here to put on a suit. I came here to put on a jersey and some shorts. That’s what I came here to do. That’s the frustration part — when you see your team struggle and you know how much you can help them, and you can’t do anything in a suit and tie. That’s when the negativity starts to creep into your mind.”
The Lakers went 6-11 without James, who entered Thursday’s game averaging 27.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.1 assists in 34.6 minutes a game.
The timing of James’ return was fortuitous for the Lakers, who began a six-game road trip Thursday. Their next game is in Oakland against the defending champion Warriors on Saturday.
Over the last couple of days, James slowly worked up to being ready for an NBA game. He did a halfcourt, five-on-five scrimmage, then fullcourt scrimmages for three minutes, then five minutes, then seven minutes.
He played much more than that Thursday against a scrappy Clippers team that’s fighting for playoff footing.
It was a much-needed positive moment after a very long 37 days for both James and the Lakers.
“It feels good to be 80 [percent] and just be back on the floor and put on a Lakers uniform again,” James said. “That’s what it’s all about. That’s why I’m here.”
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