SALT LAKE CITY — A lot of Utah Jazz fans circled January 11 on their calendars as the day LeBron James would come to Vivint Arena for the first time in a Los Angeles Lakers’ uniform.
The day has come but James will likely not be playing due to a groin injury suffered in a Christmas Day game against Golden State that has kept him out of action for the past eight games, five of which the Lakers lost.
However, Jazz fans can look forward to seeing former University of Utah player Kyle Kuzma, who is coming off a career-high 41 points on Wednesday night in a victory over Detroit, which moved L.A. to 23-19 on the season.
James didn’t travel to Utah Thursday with the team, which announced he would be re-evaluated by doctors in Los Angeles on Friday. But according to ESPN, coach Luke Walton “did not rule out the possibility of James traveling to Utah on his own Friday for the Jazz game” if he’s medically cleared that morning.
The report also said that it’s unlikely James would play even if cleared because the Lakers’ medical staff is usually cautious about bringing players back after injuries and because Walton has historically required players to get at least one practice in before returning from an injury, although James could be an exception.
“I think I found my jump shot. I’ve been struggling with it pretty much all year. I’ve been trying to stay consistent with my work ethic and stay in the gym and keep shooting and I know it’s going to come.”
Lakers forward Kyle Kuzma
So with James likely out, Kuzma could be the Lakers’ go-to guy as he was Wednesday when he became the fifth player in the NBA this year to score more than 40 points through three quarters, as he sat out the final quarter of the blowout victory.
Kuzma had been coming off his poorest shooting night of the year when he made just 4 of 20 shots in a victory at Dallas. Before that he had sat out a couple of games with a lower back injury and his shooting numbers in the three previous games were 1 for 4, 5 for 17 and 9 for 21.
But after some extra work the day before, Kuzma came out on fire Wednesday night, sinking 16 of 24 from the field, including 5 of 10 from 3-point range.
“I think I found my jump shot,” Kuzma said after the game. “I’ve been struggling with it pretty much all year. I’ve been trying to stay consistent with my work ethic and stay in the gym and keep shooting and I know it’s going to come.”
Walton also praised Kuzma’s work ethic after the 41-point night, saying, “what a lot of people don’t know is that even though yesterday was an off day, he was in the gym getting up 500 shots. It’s not like he just had a hot night, he came in and put in that work and then had a really nice night.”
For the season, Kuzma’s overall shooting numbers are up, to 47.1 percent from 45 percent, but his 3-point shooting numbers have dropped to 30.6 from 36.6 percent. His scoring average is 18.8 ppg up from 16.1 in 2017-18.
Besides Kuzma, the rest of the Lakers’ lineup includes Brandon Ingram at the other forward, JaVale McGee in the middle, and Josh Hart and Lonzo Ball at guards, making it one of the youngest starting groups in the league with two 21-year-olds and two 23-year-olds. Kuzma, Ball and Hart are all in their second seasons in the NBA, while Ingram is in his third. Only the 30-year-old McGee is a veteran, with 10 years of experience.
The Jazz are coming off a 106-93 victory over Orlando Wednesday night when they had to overcome a 21-point first quarter deficit as well as a 19-point deficit in the third quarter, which they responded with a 25-3 run in the final eight minutes of the quarter.
Donovan Mitchell led the way with 33 points on 12-of-21 shooting and a season-high seven assists, while Joe Ingles contributed 16 points and Rudy Gobert had 12 points and 14 rebounds.
The Jazz and Lakers met in November with L.A. taking a 90-83 victory. If James doesn’t play Friday night, he’ll have another chance in Utah on March 27 when the Lakers play their second game at Vivint Arena. The two teams will meet a fourth time during the final week of the season on April 7 at Staples Center.
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