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James has injured his ankles before — he has been on the team’s injury report with a sore left ankle since the season opener. And Saturday afternoon, after he fell to the court in agony, grabbing at his lower right leg, James did what he always does. He rose, bent over, relaced his sneakers and kept playing.
It’s why his ankles are legendary in NBA circles, bionic joints that somehow can withstand any type of contortion. But this was different.
“We do forget that he's human,” teammate Montrezl Harrell said.
James suffered a high right ankle sprain in the Lakers' 99-94 loss to the Atlanta Hawks, an injury that will keep him out indefinitely and further strain the strands that are holding together the Lakers’ chances of repeating as champions.
The injury happened early in the second quarter when Atlanta’s Solomon Hill slammed into James' right leg, forcing his ankle to fold inward. James fell to the court and screamed. The player who refuses to accept fatigue because it exposes weakness was now on the floor, grabbing at his leg while his howls echoed around an empty arena.
The NBA playoffs are scheduled to begin May 22, nine weeks from Saturday.
“Nothing angers and saddens me more than not being available to and for my teammates!” James tweeted. “I’m hurt inside and out right now. The road back from recovery begins now. Back soon like I never left.”
As the bench slowly emptied to gather around the Lakers’ leader and the game's biggest star, James stood up and hobbled his way across the court. He walked from one end of the bench to the other, stopping to try to stretch out his right ankle before somehow staying in the game.
On his first play back, James caught a pass in the corner opposite his bench and drilled a three-pointer, landing without putting any weight on his right foot. After the Lakers’ following defensive possession, James accepted the pain was too much and asked to be taken out of the game, slamming a chair to the floor on his way to the locker room.
He was only able to stay on the court for 46 seconds of play after trying to return.
“I don’t think any of us have ever heard LeBron scream,” teammate Markieff Morris said.
Teammate Anthony Davis and Lakers general manager Rob Pelinka eventually followed James to the locker room, where James left before the game concluded. He received X-rays and an MRI exam.
Multiple Lakers expressed disdain for what they considered to be a reckless play by Hill.
“He had to go through his leg to get the ball, man,” Harrell said. “He was turned sideways. The ball was behind him. I mean, you're jumping at an angle, going across this way, I mean, I don't know how you feel that's a loose ball.”
Hill tweeted after the game that he would “never take a player out purposely” and that he’s “praying for a speedy recovery.”
James left the game with 10 points and four assists, preserving a streak of 1,036 consecutive games with at least 10 points — the longest in NBA history.
After winning last season’s championship, the Lakers had only 71 days of offseason. Davis has missed the last month because of calf and Achilles injuries, and is set for reevaluation at the end of the coming week. Veteran leader Jared Dudley recently tore knee ligaments. And now the Lakers are facing the possibility of an extended period without James.
The effects of the short turnaround, Vogel said, can’t be ruled out.
“It’s impossible to tell,” he said somberly. “It’s possible, but like I said, it’s impossible to tell.”
The Lakers also have been affected by the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Dennis Schroder and Alex Caruso have missed extended time while in the NBA's health and safety protocols after being exposed to people who tested positive. Marc Gasol just exited the protocols, but because he has not played or practiced since Feb. 28, his return is still on hold despite participating in a pregame, on-court workout.
James is having a most valuable player-type season, averaging 25.8 points, 8.1 rebounds and 8.0 assists while leading the Lakers to the best defensive rating in the NBA.
“He should get it this year,” Vogel said Thursday of James’ MVP chances. “He’s doing it every night, and no one is as deserving.”
While the Lakers are only 2½ games behind league-leading Utah in the Western Conference, they are just 2½ games ahead of the sixth-place Portland Trail Blazers, with the NBA’s trade deadline Thursday and an opportunity for even more chaos in the West.
The Lakers will play Sunday in Phoenix, their second game during a stretch in which they play seven times in 12 days. They also have a seven-game road trip to begin April.
“It’s certainly going to be a challenge anytime you’re undermanned, but if you play team-first basketball and you defend at a high level, you have a chance to win,” Vogel said. “And that will be our mind-set.”
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.