Nearly eight months after he helped the Los Angeles Lakers win their 17th NBA championship and first in a decade, LeBron James stood at center court while holding a microphone and staring at the handful of fans.
“This is your guys’ moment,” James said to the estimated 4,000 fans before the Lakers hosted the Houston Rockets at Staples Center on Wednesday night. “We had our ring night. We wanted you guys there. But we made sure we saved the banner for ya’ll. We love you guys.”
Nearly eight months after guiding the Lakers with his play and leadership, James sought to offer more reassurance.
“Our goal to win back to back starts in about a week,” James said. “Let’s get going.”
That James said those words in street clothes only captured the uncertainty over whether the Lakers can defend their NBA championship. James missed Wednesday’s game because of his continued soreness on a right high ankle sprain, an injury that sidelined him for six consecutive games after appearing in only two games following a 20-game absence.
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Lakers forward Anthony Davis also missed Wednesday’s game because of left adductor tightness, an injury Lakers coach Frank Vogel said emerged after Davis woke up in the morning with a great deal of soreness in his groin. The Lakers also nursed absences to Alex Caruso (sore right foot) and Dennis Schröder (health and safety protocols).
Vogel did not sound worried about those absences. Vogel described Davis’ injury as “minor” and opted to sit him partly to receive rest after playing 41 minutes in Sunday’s win over Phoenix and 43 minutes in Tuesday’s overtime victory over New York. Caruso is considered day-to-day. And Vogel considered it “a possibility” that Schröder could return for Saturday’s game in Indiana after missing the past six games because of the NBA’s health and safety protocols.
As for James?
Vogel maintained “there’s a chance” James could also play in Saturday’s game against the Pacers. But Vogel also conceded that James could miss the Lakers’ last two-regular season games and that “it’s possible” he would not return until a potential play-in tournament.
The Lakers finished with a 124-122 win over the Rockets to salvage their chances at securing the No. 6 seed, which would prevent them from participating in the play-in tournament. The Lakers (40-30) need to win their two remaining regular-season games in Indiana (Saturday) and New Orleans (Sunday), while either the Dallas Mavericks (40-29) or Portland Trail Blazers (40-29) have to lose their remaining two games. Both Portland and Dallas hold regular-season tiebreakers over the Lakers.
That job becomes substantially easier if James can return for any of those games.
“We’re all eager to see him back out there, but we also have to be realistic that a high ankle sprain, these things don’t go away quickly,” Vogel said. “I don’t know what percent he’s going to be at. But it’s a challenge with this type of injury going into important games like we’re going to go into.”
Vogel said that James has “been moving well” in individual workouts in the past week, and that he practiced fully with the team on Monday in drill work, contrived scrimmages and a short, full scrimmage.
“It’s everything,” Vogel said about James. “It’s soreness, it’s strengthening and it’s the movement. Give it hopefully a few more days. He’s not quite there yet.”
All of which made for a weird juxtaposition for when the Lakers unveiled their championship banner.
They presented their championship rings to players, coaches and staff members before the team’s season-opening game against the Clippers on Dec. 22, while obeying social-distancing rules. But the Lakers held out on showcasing their banner for their season finale since that coincided with city ordinances allowing for a limited amount of fans into an arena that normally can hold up to 18,997 people. But the Lakers had four key players not in uniform for the occasion, including James and Davis.
“We can’t really worry about things we can’t control. We can’t worry about us not being in a pandemic and not being in a parade and not being able to do this,” Vogel said. “We’re all trying to make the best of a tough situation and not worry about the other stuff. It’s going to be a special night for all of us. We’re looking forward toward being a part of it.”
Part of that ceremony also included Lakers owner Jeanie Buss and Davis addressing the crowd with grateful and reassuring words.
“Without you guys, we wouldn’t be able to raise this banner or have this trophy,” Davis said. “So like ‘Bron said, let’s try to get this going and try to repeat.”
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