So much for easing back in.
In his first game since Christmas to let a groin injury heal, LeBron James played 40 minutes and came an assist shy of a triple-double as the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Los Angeles Clippers in overtime on Thursday night.
James had missed 17 games, the longest absence of his career, after injuring his groin in the holiday game against the Golden State Warriors. Initially expected to sit out only a few games, the injury lingered and forced James to miss five weeks.
The Lakers were 20-14 at the time of his injury, but were 6-11 without him and now stand in the ninth spot in the Western Conference, just out of the playoff picture.
The overtime win on Thursday was doubly meaningful because it came against the Clippers, who occupy the eighth spot, currently one game ahead of their in-city rivals.
The Lakers were cagey about James’s status for the game, listing him as “doubtful” and not announcing his participation until an hour and a half before game time despite widespread suspicion he would play.
There was nothing doubtful about his performance. James finished with 24 points along with 14 rebounds and nine assists, all game highs.
“Being out five weeks, I’m feeling it right now,” James told reporters. “I wish I could click my shoes together right now and be home in my bed.”
Lakers Coach Luke Walton told The Los Angeles Times: “Wasn’t looking to play LeBron 40 minutes tonight, but that’s just kind of the way the game played out.”
While James’s return performance reinforces the narrative that he is a timeless superstar, making the N.B.A. Finals year after year, the injury is a reminder that he is 34, and the window for greatness in Los Angeles will not be open forever.
With that in mind, Los Angeles is very interested in acquiring a superstar to complement James, specifically Anthony Davis of the Pelicans, who is interested in moving on. Davis’s agent, Rich Paul, was fined $50,000 this week for talking too freely about trades. Paul was at the Lakers game on Thursday night.
Davis has been dealing with an injury of his own, to his finger, that has caused him to miss the last six games.
The N.B.A. trade deadline is Thursday.