Lakers, LeBron James continue final playoff push vs. Raptors

NBA Basketball

Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James returned to the court Friday night after a six-week absence — and just in time.

The Lakers are struggling. Los Angeles has dropped five of its past six, including a 110-106 loss to the visiting Sacramento Kings on Friday in James’ return. He missed 20 games due to a high-ankle sprain he suffered on March 20.

With the loss, the Lakers (36-27) dropped to the No. 6 seed in the Western Conference. The No. 5 seed is the Dallas Mavericks, who have an identical record but hold the tiebreaker over Los Angeles. Both teams remain a game ahead of the No. 7 seed, the Portland Trail Blazers (35-28).

Los Angeles hosts the Toronto Raptors on Sunday night in the second game of a three-game homestand.

James finished with 16 points, eight rebounds and seven assists in 32 minutes against the Kings.

Lakers coach Frank Vogel said the 36-year-old James would not have a minutes restriction and the team would be responsible with his playing time moving forward.

“For my first game in six weeks, 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, as far as doing different things, different movements that I haven’t done obviously in a game situation in six weeks. So I think as the games go on, that will continue to improve.

“But I came out unscathed and feeling pretty good, so it was a good start.”

Vogel said he knows the insertion of James into the lineup isn’t a cure-all.

“We expect there to be an adjustment period,” Vogel said. “There’s going to be bumps in the road. It’s going to be bumpy those final nine games. It was bumpy going into the playoffs last year, too.

“But we’ve got to balance that. We’ve got to try and get these guys each day to find their rhythm and timing and chemistry together, with one another. And win as many games as we can along the way.”

The Raptors (26-38) will face the Lakers in the second half of a road back-to-back after losing a hard-fought 106-102 game to the Utah Jazz on Saturday.

Returning to the lineup after missing a game with a nagging hip injury, Fred VanVleet led the Raptors, scoring 21 of his team-high 30 points in the first half.

Losers of four of their past five games, the Raptors will finish a four-game road swing with Sunday’s game against the Lakers and a Tuesday contest with the Los Angeles Clippers.

Toronto is three games behind the Washington Wizards for the No. 10 seed in the Eastern Conference. Seeds 7 through 10 will qualify for the playoff play-in round.

So, with eight games left, the Raptors need a lot of things to go right to reach the postseason. Their first losing season since 2012-13 is guaranteed, however.

“This year, having COVID and all of that stuff, it’s been different,” longtime Toronto guard Kyle Lowry said. “So you appreciate the consistency that you’ve had for a certain amount of years, but it’s kind of a reset now.”

–Field Level Media

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