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LOS ANGELES -- Luke Walton was in his twenties the last time he played a game in the NBA, back on Feb. 10. Now, 52 days and 22 missed games later, he's 30 years old and back in the Lakers' lineup, recovered from a pinched nerve in his lower back.
Walton checked into Sunday's 100-81 loss to the San Antonio Spurs with 8:58 remaining in the second quarter and was greeted by a chorus of "Luuuuuuuuuuke" from the fans in the stands at Staples Center. Missed for his ability to kick the offense in motion during his absence, Walton's return was lackluster and couldn't help Los Angeles on a day it shot just 41 percent from the field as a team and 24 percent from 3-point range.
The seven-year veteran played eight minutes in all, racking up two assists, two fouls and zero shot attempts in the final box score.
"I felt good," Walton said after the game. "My back felt good out there. My timing was a little off, but that will come, that's nothing [to worry about]. It was fun to be back out there. Unfortunately we just got smacked on our home court, but it was still fun to be back out there."
The highlight of Walton's day came on the Lakers first possession of the fourth quarter when Walton assisted a Jordan Farmar layup with a perfectly-placed alley-oop pass on a set play coming out of the break in between quarters.
"I told him it was good to get his feet wet, get out there and get in the rhythm of playing a little bit," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "He still looks like he's a step behind, but he made some passes that led to assists and that's something we need."
L.A. could have clinched the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference with a win Sunday, but stumbled instead, barely resembling the team that dismantled Utah on Friday. Despite the inconsistency, several Lakers players maintained their confidence about the direction the team is headed.
"We'll be OK," Ron Artest said. "It seems like we're improving, we just can't relax."
The Lakers started the game strong, holding an eight-point lead midway through the first quarter before the Spurs were able to mount their run.
"We should just be aware," Pau Gasol said. "Aware of what the possibilities are when we don't play as well and when we have a couple mistakes when we shouldn't have them."
Jackson wasn't quite as positive in his assessment of what the loss means, but did offer some hope for the postseason when his team will be able to focus on one team for an extended period of time.
"It doesn't bode well for playoffs," Jackson said.
"You want to go out and get some momentum and continue to build game to game, but we can't seem to put it together from one opponent to the next. Maybe if we have one, single opponent for seven games, we'll be able to do that."
When the 6.9 magnitude earthquake hit in Baja, Calif., and Mexico at 3:40 p.m. PT on Sunday, several players were finishing up postgame interviews in the locker room.
Walton joked to a locker room attendant that he needed to find the nearest doorway to stand in and the attendant said he was going to jump into a locker, but didn't want the clothes hangers to fall on his head.
Gasol, who said he has experienced earthquakes in both California and Japan before, felt the rattle as well.
"As long as the ceiling doesn't fall on us and the floor doesn't crack, we'll be OK," Gasol said.Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.