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LeBron James clears NBA’s health and safety protocols after negative COVID tests

Lakers forward LeBron James, right, controls the ball in front of Sacramento Kings guard Terence Davis II.
Lakers forward LeBron James, right, controls the ball in front of Sacramento Kings guard Terence Davis II on Friday. James is out of the NBA’s health and safety protocols and will play Friday against the Clippers.
(Ringo H.W. Chiu / Associated Press)

It’s the kind of news that might’ve even made a young Russell Westbrook pull his head out of his text book after learning on the eve of a big game in Los Angeles that the most famous player will be reinserted into the mix.

LeBron James’ quick return to the Lakers lineup from the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols after a false-positive test is the type of big deal that elevates an already big game — even if it wasn’t always that way for one of the local stars playing in it.

Growing up in Los Angeles, Westbrook didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about the simmering NBA rivalry in his city. It wasn’t just because the Lakers were the city’s established champion and the Clippers were mostly a punching bag.

No, there were more important rivalries to tackle.

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“I was viewing my grades as my rivalry,” he said Thursday. “… Me vs. biology. Chemistry. That’s what I was worried about.”

Things change, whether it’s scientific matter or which franchises matter.After recent free-agent and trade barrages, there’s no question that the Lakers-Clippers rivalry is healthy heading into Friday’s first game between the two this season — even if one team is healthier than the other.

This is where James comes in after multiple rounds of negative tests have him cleared and ready to play after missing the team’s win Tuesday in Sacramento.

He’ll be on the court with a Lakers team that’s hopeful its on an upward trajectory after winning consecutive games with a lineup that’s getting healthier after a ragged start. Guard Avery Bradley will avoid thumb surgery, while veteran forward Trevor Ariza, who coach Frank Vogel said was a key to the Lakers’ small-ball lineups, was a participant in his first practice since the beginning of training camp. Bradley will be able to play with his thumb in a splint while Ariza is still doing noncontact work.

Even as the Lakers crawl toward full strength, the team continues to make alterations, with Vogel saying Thursday that he’ll replace center DeAndre Jordan with Dwight Howard in the Lakers’ starting lineup Friday against the Clippers.

If that switch isn’t a big enough surprise for the Clippers, James’ presence on the court will certainly alter the plans. Thought to be out for at least a handful of games after testing positive for COVID-19 on Tuesday, James’ results were rerun with conflicting results. He remained in the NBA’s health and safety protocols until Thursday after he produced two negative tests more than 24 hours apart.

With Kawhi Leonard recovering from offseason knee surgery, the game won’t have all its available star power on hand. With Nicolas Batum still in the health and safety protocols, the Clippers are without one of their glue guys on their roster — a rangy wing that they could’ve thrown at Anthony Davis or James.

In attempting to carry the short-handed Clippers to the postseason, Paul George has had one of the best starts to a season in his career — averaging 25.9 points, 7.3 rebounds and 5.1 assists. George and Westbrook, former teammates in Oklahoma City, are still close, Westbrook said. Their kids go to the same school and the two see plenty of each other at drop-off times.

Friday will be Westbrook’s first taste of the local rivalry, though reportedly he was interested in seeing it from Leonard’s sideline before the Clippers landed George. Westbrook didn’t comment on the issue Thursday, mostly parrying questions because of his disdain from anonymous sources speaking on his behalf.

“I never … sit back and call somebody,” Westbrook eventually said. “I sit back and wait and figure out if somebody wants to play with me, then cool. Those conversations happen. But those private conversations that are had I keep those to myself so I have no answer as [it] pertains to that.”

The Lakers put on a strong defensive performance during part of a win over the Pistons, but it’s troubling the team hasn’t sustained that effort.

In the end, George, Leonard and Westbrook all landed in Los Angeles within three seasons — three Southern California stars now playing professionally in their backyards.

Both teams have struggled plenty this season, the Lakers’ inconsistencies plaguing them from the start. Yet while the Clippers try to figure out life without Leonard, the Lakers seem to be getting used to one another in recent games.

One of the reasons has been Westbrook’s on-court comfort level, the star guard settling in after a slow start to the season. The improvements have been a natural progression and not some grand discovery.

“It is natural for me the last four seasons because I’ve been playing for four different teams, so I have to figure out a way to be able to be effective, best for the team that’s given to me,” he said. “With that is the process that I never waver from, the process I never panic and I just constantly watch film and figure out how to better myself or my team and that’s all I can do and that’s why I always never really worry about anything happening in the first two weeks of the NBA season, month, whatever, because things can change as the season prolongs.”

They changed for the Lakers in 24 hours this week, just like they’ve changed for the Clippers over the last two decades — the two franchises becoming among the NBA’s top destinations for star players.

The Clippers knew they’d be without one of their stars this season; the Lakers have had to adjust to missing theirs this season on the fly.

Now almost healthy and finally with hints of momentum, the Lakers can win their third straight game. By beating a rival, it might mean a little more at a time when they should embrace victories whenever and however they get them.

UP NEXT

VS. CLIPPERS

When: 7 p.m.

On the air: TV: Spectrum SportsNet/Bally Sports SoCal; Radio: 710, 1330/ 570 1220

Update: Bumped from national TV in favor of the Warriors-Suns rematch, the Lakers will try to win their third straight and play at a level that suggests they, too, can become an upper-crust team in the West. Behind improved defensive games and a healthier roster, the Lakers still have realistic hopes for improvement and will benefit greatly by having LeBron James back after missing one game in the NBA’s COVID-19 protocols. The Clippers, meanwhile, are trying to hang on thanks to Paul George’s mastery while Kawhi Leonard recovers from offseason knee surgery. It’ll be the first time the two teams have played against each other in a full Staples Center since March 8, 2020.


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