LeBron James returns from injury, leads Lakers to rare overtime win over Clippers

LeBron James made his return on Thursday night after missing 17 games with a groin injury, and nearly dropped a triple-double in the Lakers’ win against the Clippers. (Harry How/Getty Images)
LeBron James made his return on Thursday night after missing 17 games with a groin injury, and nearly dropped a triple-double in the Lakers’ win against the Clippers. (Harry How/Getty Images)

It took an extra five minutes, but LeBron James walked off the floor at the Staples Center on Thursday night with a win in his first game back in nearly five weeks.

James led the Los Angeles Lakers to a 123-120 overtime win against the Los Angeles Clippers on Thursday night, a rare feat for the Lakers in the city series in recent years. Heading into the night, the Clippers had won 22 of the last 25 matchups.

James suffered a groin injury on Christmas Day in their win against the Golden State Warriors, and missed the next 17 games — marking the longest stretch he’s been sidelined due to injury in his 16-year NBA career. The Lakers went 6-11 without him, and now sit one game out of a playoff spot in the Western Conference.

The Lakers, while earning just their second win in their last six games, handed the Clippers their second straight home loss.

“We got stops, and we made some timely stops,” James said after the game, via Spectrum SportsNet. “Everybody was huge, especially ‘Born Ready’ (Lance Stephenson), came in off the bench. It’s going to be different guys every night for our team. That’s why we have our depth. We’re starting to get our depth back. So, ‘Born Ready’ was ready for that challenge, and we all just tried to help him out.”

Out to a slow start

James got out to a slow start on Thursday night and entered the locker room at halftime with just five points, having shot 2-of-7 from the field.

His first bucket of the night came easy, though, as he expertly finished a fast break with a layup early in the first quarter.

Despite having built up two separate eight-point leads in the second quarter, the Lakers clinged to a 54-53 advantage at the break.

Second-half runs lead to free basketball

The Lakers pulled away to start the second half, opening the third quarter with a quick 18-8 run en route to a 14-point lead.

The Clippers made one final push, however, mounting a 17-6 run over a three-minute span midway through the fourth quarter to bring them back within two points.

With 35 seconds left, Tobias Harris drilled a huge 3-pointer to tie the game up 112-112 and cap a 9-1 run.

The Clippers then came up with a quick stop, but a rough possession ended with a heavily contested 3-point attempt from Avery Bradley and gave the Lakers the ball back for one final chance to win it in regulation.

Neither team could muster a bucket, however, sending the game to overtime.

With 1:15 left in the extra session, James drilled a fadeaway jumper and then threw up a pass to Stephenson on the next possession, who finished a layup while drawing a foul to give the Lakers a five-point lead.

While the Clippers got one last bucket, it wasn’t enough. The Lakers held on for the three-point win.

James through the ‘toughest stretch of his career’

James led the Lakers with a near triple-double, dropping 24 points, 14 rebounds and nine assists in his first game back. He shot 9-of-22 from the field.

And while he said he wasn’t fully healthy, James said the game slowly started to come back to him as the night went on.

“I’m about 80 (percent) right now,” James told Spectrum SportsNet. “But I was good enough to, and feel confident to be able to just keep pushing throughout the game. The first quarter for me was kind of a feel-out. I haven’t been out there since December 25. Second quarter, I kind of ramped it up a little bit more, and then for the rest of the game.”

“It’s going to take me a little while to get my rhythm back.”

Stephenson added 20 points off the bench for the Lakers while shooting 5-of-8 from behind the arc, and Brandon Ingram finished with 19 points.

Lou Williams led the Clippers with 24 points off the bench, shooting 10-of-18 from the field. Patrick Beverley finished with 17 points, and Harris and Montrezl Harrell each finished with 15 points. As a team, the Clippers shot just 14-of-26 from the free-throw line.

The Lakers will now head on the road and take on the Golden State Warriors on Saturday, a quick turnaround for James.

And though he played more minutes on Thursday night than he planned — he played a game-high 40 minutes — James said he’s just happy to be through what he called the “toughest stretch of his career.”

“The No. 1 thing I’m thinking about right now is starting the treatment process,” James told Spectrum SportsNet. “I want to kind of see how my body reacts tomorrow. That’s going to be the telltale sign for me tomorrow after my body had to play 40 minutes, unfortunately, with the overtime.

“But I worked my ass off to get back to this point. It was the toughest stretch of my career, not being out on the floor and being out for five weeks. But it just felt great to get back out here. This is my rest haven.”

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