LeBron James misses potential game-winner, Lakers lose in his return – Daily Bulletin

LOS ANGELES — LeBron James might be stronger and heal faster than the common man, but after a 20-game layoff, some things will just take time.

There was not quite enough in his legs to hit a game-winning 3-point attempt in the last seconds of a 110-106 loss to the short-handed Sacramento Kings, a disappointing return for James after the Lakers (36-27) showed how much they struggle without him at the helm.

It turned out to be a continuation of the slide, their fifth loss in six games, as James had 16 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in a comeback that fell just shy of reassuring. With only nine games remaining in the regular season, there’s a lot of work for the defending champions to do. They are now just a half-game ahead of the Dallas Mavericks (35-27) for fifth place in the Western Conference standings (Dallas holds the tiebreaker), with seventh-place Portland (35-28) just one game back. The 7-10 seeds have to take part in the play-in tournament.

The theme of the last stint of the season will be how much the Lakers can find rhythm while still winning games, which as Friday’s loss illustrated will be a challenge. Coach Frank Vogel played 11 different Lakers, even with reserve guard Alex Caruso out. James himself seemed dazed by how much the Lakers have to work on in such a short amount of time.

“It’s been a hell of a season, obviously: Everything has felt so rushed,” he said. “And it’s a game every other day, or it’s a game back-to-backs. You can have as many as four or five games in a week. So, it’s been a long, super-quick season. So how much can we make out of these nine games? I’m not sure.”

They were paced by 22 points from Anthony Davis, who added 11 rebounds and five blocked shots in a somewhat hot-and-cold performance. The Lakers actually led by 11 at one point in the second half, but they couldn’t stop Sacramento, former Lakers coach Luke Walton, and seven Kings who scored in double figures. Sacramento outscored the Lakers 32-18 in the fourth quarter.

Nothing came easy against a Kings team that gave up 154 points in its last appearance. Already short-handed due to injury, the Sacramento bench got even shorter when starter Chimezie Metu (Lawndale High, USC) fell on his tailbone in the first half and did not return.

But the Kings improvised thanks to precocious rookie Tyrese Haliburton, who scored 23 points himself off a diverse game of jumpers and floaters. But the Iowa State product also ran a devastating pick-and-roll with Richaun Holmes, who dunked his way to 22 points.

Late in the game, the Lakers’ offense ground to a halt as the Kings got going again, and with minutes to go, the starting lineup could not make hay. Sacramento led by five points in the last two minutes before James hit his only 3-pointer of the night to cut to two.

The Lakers went small with Davis at center, and it almost paid off in a big way as he scooped up a steal for a chance to win on the final possession.

“Had a clean look, you live with those shots,” said Davis, who missed 16 of the 20 games while James was out. “Still a tough one to lose, but like I say, he’s still finding his rhythm and we’re still finding our rhythm as a team.”

The big story, however, was James’ return: It wasn’t until he drove in the first quarter, firmly planting that right foot down on a weaving path to the hoop, that he finally seemed to exhale.

As he walked back to the line to take his extra free throw on his first basket of the night, James blew out more than a month of stale air collected in his lungs. And the 2,000 or so fans inside Staples Center, and probably the legions watching at home, exhaled, too.

“That play, I was able to push off of my right ankle, going left off the ankle that was hurt, and be able to get a good step on a really good defender and then finish at the rim,” he said. “So that was a good step for me mentally.”

While it might take several games, and perhaps even weeks, before James is back to his full physical ability and conditioning, key sequences reinforced what the Lakers can do only when James is on the court.

They were in need of a pick-me-up in the first quarter when the Kings pounded their way inside for a 30-15 lead. With just 1:08 left in the quarter, James helped engineer an 8-0 finish to the frame with his and-one and a timely putback by center Marc Gasol, then led the lineup to a four-point lead.

No other starters were on the court with him during the entirety of the 26-7 run that changed the dynamic of the game. But when Davis, Andre Drummond and Dennis Schröder checked back in, they kept up the momentum with defensive intensity, seemingly catching a wind at their backs. Davis in particular had four of his blocks in the second quarter, leaping at layups and into passing lanes.

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