LeBron James still day-to-day as the Lakers approach a brutal schedule stretch

Yahoo Sports
<a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/teams/lal" data-ylk="slk:Lakers">Lakers</a> superstar <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/3704/" data-ylk="slk:LeBron James">LeBron James</a> could only watch from the bench during a loss to the <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/teams/lac" data-ylk="slk:Clippers">Clippers</a> on Dec. 28. (Getty Images)
Lakers superstar LeBron James could only watch from the bench during a loss to the Clippers on Dec. 28. (Getty Images)

A full week after LeBron James suffered a left groin strain on Christmas Day and the Los Angeles Lakers listed the superstar as “day-to-day,” he only began shooting with the team for the first time, and his return remains unclear as his teammates are approaching a brutal stretch of their schedule.

Lakers coach Luke Walton told reporters that James’ participation in Tuesday’s practice was limited to some shooting, marking the first time he has even reached that level of participation with the team since suffering the injury in the third quarter of last week’s victory against the Golden State Warriors.

“He’s working on his body, his game, himself all the time,” Walton said from Tuesday’s practice, according to ESPN’s Baxter Holmes. “But that’s the first time I’ve seen him shoot [since the injury].”

The Lakers ruled James out for Wednesday’s game against the Oklahoma City Thunder, but continued to list him as day-to-day. There is increasing skepticism among those covering the team that James will return for Friday’s game against the New York Knicks or the two-game road trip through Minnesota and Dallas early next week. That would push the four-time MVP’s day-to-day status to two full weeks.

After the back-to-back on the road, the Lakers then play the Detroit Pistons next Wednesday, kicking off a string of seven games every other night into late January. It is on that run that their schedule really ramps up, with 10 of their final 12 games before the All-Star break against playoff contenders:

Jan. 17: at Oklahoma City Thunder
Jan. 19: at Houston Rockets
Jan. 21: vs. Golden State Warriors
Jan. 24: vs. Minnesota Timberwolves
Jan. 27: vs. Phoenix Suns
Jan. 29: vs. Philadelphia 76ers
Jan. 31: at Los Angeles Clippers
Feb. 2: at Golden State Warriors
Feb. 5: at Indiana Pacers
Feb. 7: at Boston Celtics
Feb. 10: at Philadelphia 76ers
Feb. 12: at Atlanta Hawks

With the possible exception of Minnesota, the games against Phoenix and Atlanta are the only ones in which the Lakers should roll to victory, even without James. This stretch they’re in now — having hosted Sacramento on Sunday and facing the sub-.500 Knicks, Wolves and Mavericks over the next week — is one the Lakers needed to put some cushion under a playoff standing that is slipping away from them.

After dropping their first two games upon losing their leader in points, assists and rebounds, the Lakers earned their first win without James on his 34th birthday, requiring a fourth-quarter rally and 26 points from Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to get it. That win improved the Lakers to 21-16 and kept them from slipping into eight place in the Western Conference after jumping to fourth on Christmas.

They now sit in seventh, three games in the loss column either way from second or 12th. They need a healthy James for that run from mid-January to the All-Star break if they want to avoid slipping out of the top eight spots, and we’re inching closer to wondering whether they will have him at full strength.

It was Warriors superstar Stephen Curry who warned us that James’ injury was “one you can’t really rush.” Curry suffered the same injury on Nov. 8 and missed 11 straight games over the next three weeks. A similar recovery timeline for James would peg his return at that Jan. 17 game in OKC. Curry’s numbers have been incredible since his return (28.1 points on 46/42/91 splits, with 5.3 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game), but they have dipped from his torrid start (29.5 points on 52/49/92 splits, with 6.1 assists and five rebounds per game). It is unclear if this is injury-related or just a return to earth.

The Lakers will need James to be otherworldly for that gauntlet against the best teams from both conferences if they want to avoid falling back to .500 past the two-thirds point of the season. That is entirely possible, given his almost superhuman history of elite-level play over 16 seasons.

The Lakers, as with most teams out West, don’t exactly have it easy after the All-Star break, either, but at least there’s a little let-up. Still, sixteen of their final 25 games are against teams with a .500 record or better, and Anthony Davis’ New Orleans Pelicans — with whom the Lakers have three meetings over that same stretch — could be the variance between a truly difficult schedule and a manageable one. Just a few more reasons for the Lakers to pursue Davis before the Feb. 7 trade deadline, I guess.

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Ben Rohrbach is a staff writer for Yahoo Sports. Have a tip? Email him at rohrbach_ben@yahoo.com or follow him on Twitter!

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