Los Angeles Lakers superstar LeBron James scored 23 points, but the rival Boston Celtics spoiled his return from a two-week injury absence with a dominant 130-108 victory on Friday night at TD Garden.
James finished 10 for 16 from the floor (3 for 7 from 3-point range) and missed his lone free-throw attempt. He added six rebounds and two assists against two turnovers in 32 minutes before exiting in garbage time.
"Physically, I felt OK, good enough to know I could trust my body and play tonight," said James, who used a heat pack to keep his abdomen warm during his bench minutes. "I'm more looking forward to seeing how I feel tomorrow when I wake up. That is the telltale sign if I'm moving in the right direction with my injury."
Boston's Jayson Tatum led all scorers with 37 points (13-26 FG, 4-9 3P, 7-7 FT).
James, 36, had not played since suffering an abdominal strain in the fourth quarter of a victory against the Houston Rockets on Nov. 2. He also missed two games with an ankle injury sustained three games into the season. The Lakers are 4-6 without the perennial MVP candidate, losing five of eight in his latest absence.
James relied heavily on jump shots, rarely penetrating Boston's defense off the dribble, and his playmaking suffered as a result. He also did not make a single free throw for only the 23rd time in 1,317 career games.
His own defense was not so impenetrable, and his teammates were no better, allowing at least 30 points in each of the four quarters. Boston finished with 56 points in the paint. After trailing by 14 in the first quarter, the Celtics outworked the Lakers by a 33-21 margin in the third to break open a one-point game at halftime.
"We damn sure need to play better, no matter who's in the lineup," said James, whose Lakers (8-9) fell to ninth in the Western Conference. "We have our system, and we need to obviously fast-track it and get better with it to where, no matter who's on the floor, we can play at a high level. It's never that we've got 65 games [left], and we'll figure it out then. There's no level of panic, but there should be a sense of urgency."
James entered the game averaging 24.8 points on 47/35/78 shooting splits, seven assists and 5.5 rebounds in 37 minutes per game in his first six appearances. Early this season, James' true shooting percentage is the lowest of his career. His player efficient rating is at its lowest since his rookie season, and his usage rate has fallen below 30% for just the third time in his career and the first time since 2005.
Entering Friday's game in Boston, the Lakers had outscored opponents by 2.9 points per 100 possessions in a 222-minute sample size with James on the floor, easily their lowest net rating in the superstar's playing time since they missed the playoffs in his first season in Los Angeles in 2018-19. Opponents outscored the Lakers by five points per 100 possessions in their 561 minutes without James through their first 16 games.
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