Ninety minutes before tipoff, the word had gotten out that LeBron James would make his return to the hardwood for the first time since Christmas.
Being listed as doubtful, James was undoubtedly the best player on the floor and led the Los Angeles Lakers to a 123-120 overtime win over the L.A. Clippers in front of a sellout crowd of 19,060 at Staples Center Thursday night.
James didn’t miss a beat, recording 24 points, 14 rebounds and nine assists, but the four-time NBA MVP was forced to play 40 minutes, going well over his expected minutes restriction.
“I’m not feeling particularly great right now,” James said after being out 17 straight games. “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.”
The Lakers (27-24) went 6-11 without him and continued to drop spots in the heavy weighted Western Conference standings.
“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.”
Lance Stephenson scored 20 points and tied a career high with five 3-pointers, Brandon Ingram added 19 points, and Rajon Rondo chipped in with 14 points and 13 rebounds.
For the Clippers (28-24), Danilo Gallinari (low back spasms) missed his seventh straight game but got a strong performance from Lou Williams with 24 points and six assists.
Patrick Beverley added 17 points, eight rebounds and four assists, while Tobias Harris and Montrezl Harrell both added 15 points and eight rebounds, respectively.
Both teams were unable to get an upper hand in the first half, resulting in a 54-53 advantage for the Lakers at halftime.
The Lakers came out and outscored the Clippers (33-22) in the third quarter, thanks to an 18-8 run that turned into 14-point deficit for the Clippers.
Ingram converted a 14-foot pull up jump shot, followed by a Stephenson three-pointer to cap the run. The Lakers ultimately controlled the rebound margin (68-59) and shot 42 percent from three-distance, on 11 makes, while the Clippers made 14 threes on only 32 percent shooting.
However, the Clippers did make things interesting, sparking a 17-6 run midway through the fourth quarter, giving the team hope late in the game.
With 35 seconds left, Harris buried a pivotal three-pointer to tie the game up 112-112, capping a 9-1 run.
Neither team was able to get a solid attempt at a game-winning basket, resulting in free basketball at Staples Center.
In the extra period, James scored the first basket for the Lakers, followed by Rondo draining a step back jump shot.
With 1:15 left in the extra session, James drilled a fadeaway jumper and then made the assist of the game to Stephenson on the next possession, resulting in a layup, plus the foul to give the Lakers a five-point advantage.
The foul call ended up being reviewed due to Stephenson incidentally striking Clippers Boban Marjanovic in the face with a flying elbow shiver.
“I don’t know how you can come to that call,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said after the officials decided not to call a foul on Stephenson. “You make contact with the head, it’s a flagrant. It was too obvious. It was an elbow to the face. Why put in those rules if you’re not going to call it?”
Beverly made a jump shot with 2.3 seconds left, but it wasn’t enough, as the Lakers escaped with a critical 123-120 road overtime win.
“We were ready for the challenge, we stuck together” James said. “Every night, it can be a different person who can give us that lift. Tonight, it was ‘Born Ready’ [Lance Stephenson], he gave us that lift off the bench and shot the ball extremely well from the three-point line.”