LOS ANGELES — The Lakers have maintained throughout the season: It’s more important to be healthy and humming at the end of the season than in the middle.
LeBron James sat out Wednesday night’s home game against the Philadelphia 76ers, a move that could help the 37-year-old get his left knee healthy with nearly a week of rest before his next game.
Lakers coach Frank Vogel characterized James’ decision as being solely about knee soreness: “Played three games in four nights. lot of minutes There’s enough soreness to keep him out.”
The context of the decision, however, suggests the Lakers (and James) might be keeping their long-term plan in mind.
Playing without All-Star big man Anthony Davis, James has largely dragged the Lakers along with him since the All-Star break, averaging a league-leading 32.8 points and 9.1 rebounds in 14 games, including two performances of at least 50 points. But the Lakers have gone only 4-10 in that span, increasing frustration as they’ve languished in the middle of the Western Conference standings.
Since January, James has dealt with swelling and soreness in his left knee that has kept him out for six games total (the Lakers have gone 1-5 in his absence) prior to Wednesday night. After his latest game from him, scoring 38 points in a win over Cleveland, James acknowledged he’s been playing through physical issues while sitting at the postgame podium with bags of ice strapped to his knees.
“Obviously I’m dealing with a few injuries right now,” he said. “But I’m working through it and we’re working through it, and that’s all that matters.”
While the Lakers will undoubtedly miss James against the 76ers, their hope is to get James closer to full strength for the remaining nine games, including two against the New Orleans Pelicans, whom they are battling for home-court advantage in an upcoming play-in game.
The Lakers had a narrow standings advantage over the Pelicans (30-42) as of Wednesday. They play at New Orleans on Sunday, then host the Pelicans on April 1. The Pelicans own a 1-0 series advantage.
The Lakers had previously played only two games without James and Davis this season – losses to the Charlotte Hornets and Pelicans. Davis has progressed to on-court work such as shooting and dribbling in the last week-and-a-half, but it’s unclear when he’ll return from a right foot sprain.
“I think it’s really he’s getting evaluated on a daily basis based on the amount of work he did the day prior,” Vogel said. “But not like imaging and things like that. Just how is it responding to the increased workload? And he’s coming along really well.”
The Lakers are scheduled to have practices at the end of the week, which could clarify where their assorted injuries stand. Guard Talen Horton-Tucker also missed the game with a left ankle sprain, his second straight absence from him.
James’ big games and milestones have been a bright spot amid an otherwise dreary back half of the season. He became the first player 35 or older to notch multiple 50-point games in a season, and he passed Karl Malone to become the second-leading scorer in NBA history. As of Wednesday afternoon, James (30 ppg) had a narrow lead over Philadelphia’s Joel Embiid (29.8 ppg) in season-long scoring average.
Even though the Lakers are still far below where they’d like to be in the standings – and even though James himself has often had difficulty concealing his frustration about the team’s performances lately – he promised in Cleveland that he had no intention of pulling back his effort or availability as long as he was feeling physically up to the challenge.
“The game’s such a beautiful thing and just as long as I’m healthy enough to put on the uniform, I’m going to play with a lot of passion, a lot of energy, give my teammates what they deserve, what they need ,” he said. “For the rest of the season, hopefully I can stay somewhat injury-free.”
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism