LeBron James looked especially focused and serious as the Los Angeles Lakers met for shootaround on Thursday morning in El Segundo, ahead of the team kicking off its post-All-Star push for the playoffs against the Houston Rockets at Staples Center later in the evening.
"I feel good," James said, without the faintest hint of a smile. "I'm ready to go tonight. I think we're well prepared. It's good to get the season back on."
James admitted that he continues to get extra treatment on his groin, which kept the superstar sidelined for five weeks. The 34-year-old revealed that he was not entirely mentally prepared for the five-week layoff, as it turned into the lengthiest injury of his professional career. However, the Akron native was quick to point out that he missed six weeks with a broken wrist in middle school.
"Mentally, it was tough," James said. "Just seeing my team, the way they were playing and knowing how much I could have been out there helping them throughout games where they weren't playing up to speed."
Without James, the Lakers dug a bit of a hole by losing 12 of the 18 games (including the load management game) no. 23 missed. Even when James returned prior to the All-Star break, the Lakers only went 3-3 with their leader on the court.
Sitting on 28 wins and 29 losses, the Lakers are 3.0 games out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference but only 4.0 games away from the no. 6 seed and 6.0 games away from hosting a first round playoff series.
If James can stay healthy, elevate his game and lead the Lakers on a hot streak, LA could conceivably land anywhere from the no. 4 seed to the no. 8 seed, with the no. 4 seed obviously highly unlikely.
"We've got to win games, but it all starts with not turning the ball over," James said when asked about making the playoffs.
He added, "Also, free throw shooting."
Coming out of the break, the Lakers are committing 15.9 turnover per game, which ranks 29th out of 30 teams in the NBA. In free throw percentage, the Lakers are shooting a dismal 68.7 percent for the season, which is dead last in the league.
Lakers coach Luke Walton reiterated those same two areas of concern during his time with the media, while also adding in transition defense as a point on focus.
James admitted he spoke to his teammates ahead of Thursday's game, but he wouldn't reveal what he said publicly. However, the star player was adament that the team was together while pointing out that a key component, Lonzo Ball, was still sidelined with an injury.
Beyond technical areas, Walton said "a sense of urgency" and "sacrifice" were the keys for the team to be successful down the home stretch of the season.
With only 25 games remaining, James and the Lakers have little margin for error, especially in home games. Facing a Houston team that features an MVP candidate Thursday night should provide a good gauge of whether the Lakers are primed for a playoff push or are about to swirl the season down the drain.
Tip-off for the Lakers versus the Rockets is at 7:30 p.m. Pacific Time at Staples Center.
Notes: Chris Paul of the Houston Rocket and Rajon Rondo of the Laker have not faced each other since opening night, when Rondo and Paul got into fight and Rondo was caught on video spitting on Paul. Both players are set to start Thursday night.