Point guard Lonzo Ball sat out his sixth straight game because of a left shoulder sprain. But the Lakers, who have lost eight straight games and 11 of 12, got some good news on the injury front Wednesday.
Center Brook Lopez returned a little earlier than expected from a right ankle sprain, but Julius Randle started despite Lopez's availability and scored nine points in 21 minutes in the Lakers' 133-96 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder at Staples Center.
Lopez came off the bench for the first time in three seasons and scored 10 points in just over 16 minutes.
"He gives us more shooting, veteran leadership, he's a big body going against this OKC team that is physical and leads the NBA in offensive rebounding," coach Luke Walton said of Lopez after Wednesday's shootaround. "He gives us another weapon to use. He'll be on a minutes restriction, but it will be nice to have him back."
The 7-foot, 268-pound Lopez was averaging 12.8 points and 4.3 rebounds when he injured the ankle against Golden State on Dec. 18. Lopez was expected to sit out at least three weeks, but the swelling subsided and he felt strong during three-on-three and four-on-four drills Tuesday.
The Lakers have given up an average of 117.1 points per game in Lopez's absence.
"It's been tough," Lopez said of watching the team struggle in his absence. "I like being on the floor with my guys and helping wherever I can."
The Lakers have also struggled without Ball, the playmaking rookie who is averaging 10.0 points and 7.1 assists. Walton said Ball practiced hard Tuesday but "woke up a little sore" Wednesday. He remains day-to-day.
"As much as we want him on the court, we have to be smart about when he comes back to play," Walton said. "We're going to take our time and be patient with him. He wants to play, but he also understands it's a long season, a long career. He's listening to the trainers and doing everything he should be doing."
Leading scorer Kyle Kuzma, who averaged 17.5 points before Wednesday, has been slowed by a left quadriceps contusion but scored 18 points in 28 minutes against the Thunder.
The Lakers have discussed putting Kuzma on a minutes restriction as he makes the transition from college ball to the more grueling NBA schedule.
"He's not hurt right now, but it's part of our job to monitor and make sure he doesn't get worn down," Walton said. "With how hard he plays … it's a fine line, because we like how hard he plays; we want to encourage everyone to play like that. We'll keep an eye on it. We'll see if he looks fatigued out there, and we'll monitor those minutes going forward."
Since scoring 31 points and making eight of 18 shots and six of 11 three-pointers against Minnesota on Christmas Day, Kuzma has made 26 of 79 (32.9%) shots in five games.
"I think it's fighting through the fatigue and the schedule we've been playing more than the quad," Walton said of Kuzma's shooting slump. "It's the NBA season, he's playing big minutes, and he plays extremely hard.
"He gets kneed, he hits the deck all game long, he's guarding point guards, he's guarding centers. Anyone who's playing as many minutes as him on any team is probably banged up right now."