The Clippers had just finished practice Wednesday afternoon when the news began to trickle in, from texts and tweets.
The Lakers had ruled LeBron James out for the teams’ intra-city matchup the following day.
Doc Rivers’ first reaction was skepticism.
“Maybe I’m just not a trusting soul,” the Clippers coach said. “I just thought it was too obvious yesterday when out of nowhere he was ‘out.’
“Usually you don’t hear that that early. I told my coaches, ‘Then he’s in!’”
By Thursday morning, James had been upgraded to “doubtful.” Ninety minutes before tipoff, Lakers coach Luke Walton confirmed what Rivers called “the worst-kept secret, maybe ever” – for the first time since missing 17 games with a strained groin, James was returning.
The Lakers, 6-11 with James out of the lineup, are now 1-0 with him back in it after Thursday’s 123-120 victory at Staples Center, the first game between the teams to reach overtime since 2000.
“I’m not feeling particularly great right now,” James said with a smile. “Definitely ecstatic about being back out there with my guys and getting a great road win versus a team that we’re kind of climbing [against] in the playoff race. After being out five weeks, I’m feeling it right now. I wish I could click my shoes together and be home right now in my bed, but it was great to be back out there.”
James said his health was at about 80% during the game. He’d averaged 34.6 minutes a game before the injury but was not under a minutes restriction Thursday.
“Nice to have LeBron back,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “Wasn’t looking to play LeBron 40 minutes tonight but that’s just kind of the way the game played out.”
The game took place amid an intense spotlight on the Lakers’ future.
They entered two games behind the Clippers for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference. It also came four days after Rich Paul, the agent to James and New Orleans star Anthony Davis, publicly stated Davis was seeking a trade, and seven days before the league’s trade deadline.
With Paul sitting courtside, fans near the Lakers’ bench were heard shouting “you’re all getting traded!” and “no one wants you!” at the Lakers’ young core who have been discussed as potential trade chips for Davis.
Lou Williams scored a team-high 24 points for the Clippers (28-24), who fought back after trailing by 14 points in the third quarter. He led seven Clippers who scored in double figures.
After a layup by James with 3:17 left in the fourth, the Lakers missed their next eight shots.
The score was tied with 35 seconds left after Williams drove into the paint and found Tobias Harris open on the wing for a tying three-pointer.
Harris finished with 15 points hours after not receiving an All-Star selection his coach felt he’d deserved.
The teams traded empty possessions until the end of regulation.
James barreled past Harris to the rim with but was stripped of the ball by Patrick Beverley’s help defense with three seconds left.
After a replay review, the call was overturned and possession awarded to the Clippers. Williams missed an off-balance three-pointer at the buzzer.
But James answered with a 13-foot jumper with 1:15 left, and Lance Stephenson scored in transition and made the ensuing free throw after being fouled by Boban Marjanovic to push the Lakers’ lead to 123-118.
The play was reviewed, as Stephenson’s elbow contacted Marjanovic’s jaw, but no foul was added.
“I was blown away at least a flagrant wasn’t called,” Rivers said. “I don’t know how you can come to that judgment.”
Williams missed a tying three at the buzzer. Rajon Rondo appeared to hurt an ankle on the play, but said after the game he was fine.
One of the NBA’s best free-throw shooting teams, the Clippers made 14 of their 26 foul shots.
The Lakers (27-25), the league’s least-accurate team from the free-throw line, made 28 of their 35.
For the past week, there had been hints James was ready to return.
The practices in which he’d participated until that point had been fruitful. He first started taking contact with his teammates in half-court drills on Saturday.
On Monday, he felt well enough to do full-court, full-contact drills and didn’t feel limited after that either. With no interest in rushing back, James waited for a few more practices before returning.
Throughout his injury, James made a habit of arriving as late as possible before the game — once with a glass of red wine in his left hand. Before Tuesday’s game against the Philadelphia 76ers, James arrived early — more than three hours before the game, to work out.
He did it again before Thursday’s game, this time intending to play.
“There was still some doubt still today all the way up until an hour before the game in my mind,” James said. “But I looked at the training staff, I looked at my guy and I said let’s give it a shot.”
His routine returned. The familiar sound of James rapping along with a song — this time “Ballin’” by Young Jeezy and Lil’ Wayne — while he changed into his Lakers uniform filled the locker room. The first pair of game shorts he put on didn’t fit.
He laughed and made a joke about how long he’d been out.