LeBron James throws chalk in the air before making his Lakers return on Friday night at Staples Center. (Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)
Ignore the standings. Forget the losses. Overlook the rust.
Even disregard Friday night’s freakish 110-106 stumble to the Sacramento Kings.
After spending most of the winter hidden in a hovel of injuries and irrelevancy, the Lakers have emerged from hibernation to find themselves exactly where they need to be.
The most rested team in the NBA. The most dangerous team in the NBA. The favorites to again become champions of the NBA.
The Lakers are back because LeBron James is back.
James returned Friday after the longest absence of his career, filling Staples Center with hope and hype.
Or, in the words of flexing public address announcer Lawrence Tanter, once again speaking for a city, “LeBrawwwwn James!”
After missing 40 days and 20 games with a high right ankle sprain, James emerged to join his teammates — particularly recovering Anthony Davis and newcomer Andre Drummond — in a starry reunion that was understandably messy but splendidly meaningful.
They’re going to have to adjust to playing together. They have only nine remaining regular-season games to figure it out. They looked lost while committing 21 turnovers and being outscored 32-18 in the fourth quarter.
The ending was alarming enough for Coach Frank Vogel to express concern.
“We don’t have enough time for these guys to really find a chemistry necessary for the playoffs, but we’re going to make the best of it,” Vogel said on a videoconference. “I believe we’re going to find the right rhythm and timing and chemistry and have success in the playoffs, but it’s going to be a little bit bumpy along the way.”
Bumpy, but doable. They’ve done this before. They went 3-5 in the regular-season bubble games last fall while adjusting to the long pandemic break. Then the postseason began and they found their groove. They have that history. They have that trust.
And now they have LeBron James.
“The team had a little juice … its good when you get your main guys back on the floor,” Davis said after scoring a team-high 22 points. “We’re excited that we’re able to be fully healthy and have everyone able to play.”
The loss, Davis said, is part of the learning experience.
“We’re going to figure it out and we’re going to be fine. No one has their head down or is kind of sad because we’re losing games; we know we’re going to be fine,” he said.
James looked every bit of fine. His first stat was a rocket pass down low to Drummond, and later he found Drummond for an ally-oop dunk. Yeah, they can play together.
His first rim attack was a spinning behind-the-back dribble, the King juking two Kings. Yeah, he still can move.
In the final seconds of the first quarter, he drove down the middle past Maurice Harkless, leaped off that troublesome right ankle, and laid it in between two other defenders while being hacked. As he walked back to the foul line he nodded and smiled as if to say, see, it all works again!
Yeah, LeBron is still LeBron.
He had two bad turnovers in the closing minutes and missed a three-point attempt in the final seconds that could have won it, but he also made a three-pointer late and finished with 16 points on 50% shooting in 32 minutes.
“I felt OK,” James said. “As far as my wind, I felt pretty good. As far as my ankle, it was a little tight at times, obviously.”
But big picture? “I came out unscathed and pretty good,” James said. “So, it’s a good start.”
It was a good start to what could be another bling ending.
The return of James — along with the earlier return of Davis — once again gives the Lakers the best 1-2 jab on the planet, only now with added punch.
Think about it. They’re coming back from vacation just as the rest of the league is begging for a break.
Be honest. Now that their two stars are here, does anybody else think those injuries could have been the best thing to happen to the Lakers?
The money-hungry NBA started the season at least a month too early, giving the Lakers just 71 days of offseason rest, the fewest in league history. By being sidelined, James and Davis got that month back, and more.
The compressed schedule has fatigued players such that every week, it seems, another star limps to the bench. The Lakers’ two stars, however, are in early season shape.
Friday contained an ugly finish, yes. But legitimate reason for worry? Not so much.
Drummond agreed, saying, “We have two new guys just coming in … it’s a chemistry thing; we’re going to figure it out. Nothing that we should be too worried about. It’s going to take a little time but we’ll be fine.”
If Friday’s game was any indication, James already is making those adjustments.
He made a one-handed steal while backpedaling in a passing lane. He threw a bounce pass around his body to Markieff Morris for a dunk. He scored on a sweeping hook over Marvin Bagley Jr. He spun around two defenders for another layup.
More than anything, James deftly directed an offense that just flows differently when he’s in charge. His first pass was often the germination of several passes that ended in an open shot. His first move was often the initial step in a delicate dance that ended in an uncontested layup.
Throughout a night soaked in relief, even in defeat, the home team was reminded what it had been missing during its star’s absence.
LeBron James is back, and the Lakers’ title defense begins now.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.