LeBron James made a successful return from injury as the Los Angeles Lakers kept alive their hopes of an automatic NBA playoff spot with a 122-115 victory over the Indiana Pacers on Saturday.
James finished with 24 points while Anthony Davis led the scoring with 28 as the Lakers served notice that they have no intention of surrendering their NBA crown without a fight as the postseason approaches.
Saturday’s victory means that the Lakers can still secure the sixth seed and avoid the play-in tournament if they win their final game of the regular season against the New Orleans Pelicans on Sunday and Portland lose to Denver in their final game.
On Saturday’s evidence, the Lakers appear to be hitting the sort of form that delivered last season’s championship at just the right time, with James linking brilliantly with Davis while other key members of the roster returned from injury.
As well as James’ return, Germany’s Dennis Schroder was back from a seven-game layoff due to Covid-19 protocols, scoring 14 points, while Lakers coach Frank Vogel confirmed Alex Caruso is now fit again despite not featuring on Saturday.
Any lingering doubts about James’ return to fitness were wiped away early on Saturday, with the Lakers star throwing down a monstrous one-handed dunk from a Schroder alley-oop as the Lakers imposed themselves early on.
Six Lakers players finished in double figures, with Schroder adding 14 points on his return.
James meanwhile was happy to see his return from injury pass off without a glitch, saying afterwards that while his ankle was sore it felt much improved.
“A lot more mobility, a lot more movement, it was warm,” James said.
“Tiny bit of soreness now that the game is over which is expected, but I didn’t have a setback today which is a damn good job for myself and the medical team.”
James added that he had been wrong-footed by the early afternoon scheduling of Saturday’s game, initially expecting a night-time fixture.
“It threw me for a loop,” James said. “I knew I had to get my engine revved up early and I wasn’t sure how my ankle was going to respond.
“But it responded very well and I’m excited about what tomorrow holds.”
Jazz kept waiting
In other early NBA games on Saturday, the Phoenix Suns delayed Utah’s coronation as top seeds from the Western Conference after demolishing the San Antonio Spurs 140-103.
A Phoenix defeat would have guaranteed top spot in the West to the Jazz, who must now wait for Sunday’s final round of regular season games to clinch the top seed.
Devin Booker led Phoenix’s blowout victory with 27 points while Mikal Bridges added 18.
Elsewhere, the Brooklyn Nets warmed up for the playoffs with 105-91 defeat of the Chicago Bulls.
The game marked the first time Brooklyn’s big three of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving had taken to the court together since February.
Irving led the Brooklyn scorers with 22 points while Durant finished with 12 and Harden 5.
“The fact they’re on the court together is positive,” Nets coach Steve Nash said of Durant, Harden and Irving.
“Just the chance to feel it so it’s not so brand new when we start the playoffs next weekend.”
“It wasn’t a great game, we weren’t very sharp,” Nash added. “We weren’t firing on all cylinders but we got out of it with a win.
“We got the job done and we move on tomorrow. Hopefully we can have a good game and that sets us up for a good week of practice.”