LOS ANGELES — Coming off the bench for just the second time in his career, LeBron James still made his check-in a spectacle.
Roughly 5 1/2 minutes into the game, the 38-year-old stepped the scorer’s table, and the home crowd’s volume began to rise as he shook the chalk dust into his hands. Then as he tossed it into the air, a roar rose with it.
The Lakers have been hot over the last month and a half, and James’ arrival after a 13-game layoff due to injury seemed like it might ramp up that momentum even more. But on Sunday, the franchise star’s return could not cure all that ails the Lakers (37-38), who were outplayed nearly start to finish in a 118-108 defeat to the Chicago Bulls (36-38).
There was plenty of juice to a game between two teams at the fringe of the playoff race, including plenty of pre-game trash talking from former Laker Patrick Beverley. James’ quick escalation off the injury report from his right foot tendon injury only amped up the volume, and he wound up with a team-high 19 points and 8 rebounds on 6 for 11 shooting.
But ultimately, a lack of defensive intensity — the very thing that has driven the team’s turnaround after the trade deadline, was the key factor more than any individual player. The Lakers have boasted the league’s third-best defensive rating since the All-Star break (110.4), which helped them go 8-5 without James. But they couldn’t stay in front of Zach LaVine’s weaving drives or keep a lid on Chicago’s bench shooters, and they were bothered in the paint and on the glass by the Bulls’ physicality.
Even with James making a stunning return to the fold, the Lakers got checked in a loss that dropped them down to ninth place in the West. It ended a three-game win streak and wasn’t especially encouraging given that the Lakers have to turn around and play the Bulls again Wednesday in Chicago.
James’ return doesn’t clear up much of the Lakers’ injury uncertainty, either. While James was able to spin, plant and sprint on his injured foot which he hadn’t played on since a Feb. 26 win in Dallas, it’s uncertain how many of the Lakers’ final seven games he’ll play in as the team tries to manage his health for the playoffs. The team also played without D’Angelo Russell for the second straight game as the point guard dealt with right hip soreness.
Anthony Davis labored again for offensive touches, scoring 15 points on just eight shot attempts. The Bulls — who have had the NBA’s best defense since All-Star — hammered him with double-teams. But the Lakers’ shooters couldn’t punish them, either: The team was just 13 for 36 from deep. Troy Brown Jr. was the team’s best offensive weapon early, finishing with 18 points, while Malik Beasley (18 points) heated up late when the Lakers tried eating into Chicago’s 21-point lead.
There was a small flicker of hope with 1:30 remaining, after Beasley hit his fifth 3-pointer and brought the game within eight points. But Beverley got the last laugh, hitting a turnaround hook over James and gesturing “too small” on the court and howling to himself.
As fired up for his first game in a month as the home crowd was, James himself was slow-starting. It took him nearly four minutes to attempt his first shot, a driving baseline layup. James did a chunk of his first-half damage on the free throw line.
But as much as the Lakers could have used a hit of offense, the other side of the ball held up much more poorly. LaVine caught a rhythm on pick-and-roll drives, while Coby White and Ayo Dosunmu hit 3-pointers that had Chicago up by 20 points even by the second quarter.
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