Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

After spending the week increasing his level of activity in practices and scrimmages, LeBron James returned Thursday night after missing 17 consecutive games. The absence marked the longest of James’ career, and one in which the Lakers went 6-11.

In addition to losing James for the prolonged stretch, the Lakers played 14 games without Rajon Rondo, and the last five without Lonzo Ball. James did not have a minutes restriction in place but Lakers head coach Luke Walton said the team would monitor his conditioning.

The 16-year veteran wound up logging 40 minutes in the 123-120 overtime win against the Clippers. “I’m not feeling particularly great right now,” James said after the victory.

“I’m definitely ecstatic about being back out there with my guys and getting a good road win against a team that was climbing in the playoff race. Being out five weeks, I’m feeling it right now. I wish I could click my shoes together and be home in my bed right now in my bed. It was great to be back out there.

“The groin feels pretty good. It is a little sore right now. I haven’t played an NBA game in over a month. I already knew that was going to be a problem. I already knew my wind wasn’t where I wanted it to be, my timing on the shots — I missed a couple of layups that I’m accustomed to making. I had a couple of turnovers that were out of character.

“I’ll gain my rhythm as the season continues to go. I’m looking forward to see how I feel tomorrow. It’s going to be a tell-tale sign of all the rehab, work and everything I’ve been putting in for the past five weeks.”

James’ progression to returning included initially being listed as out following Wednesday’s practice. The Lakers added the caveat it was subject to change. Sure enough, James was upgraded to doubtful at shootaround.

Walton confirmed James was set to return while addressing the media 1.5 hours prior to tipoff.
“There was still some doubt all the way up until an hour before the game,” James revealed. “But I looked at the training staff, looked at my guys, and I said, ‘Let’s give it a shot.’

“I felt good this week. I got an opportunity to play some 5-on-5 halfcourt a few days ago, then I was able to bump it up to 5-on-5 fullcourt. For a scrimmage, I was able to play three minutes, then we went five minutes, then we went seven minutes. I was able to ramp it up a little bit, so I said let’s give it a shot. I was glad to be back out there.”

James clearly was tentative during the early stages of the game, yet almost recorded a fourth triple-double this season. “The first quarter was just kind of a feel out quarter to see how my groin would react,” James explained.

“I didn’t really run as hard or do a lot of driving. Then in the second quarter I started to get into it a little more, and more throughout the third and fourth and overtime. Had a couple more drives in the fourth quarter and overtime, which allowed my mind to settle a little bit. I’m not there all the way as far as physically. I’m 80 percent right now, but I feel good to be 80, back on the floor and put on this Lakers uniform again.”

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