LOS ANGELES – The Chicago Bulls spoiled superstar LeBron James’s return from a 13-game injury absence on Thursday, beating the Lakers 118-108 to tighten their hold on the final Eastern Conference play-in berth.
Zach LaVine scored 32 points to lead the Bulls, but all eyes were on James at Crypto.com Arena, where the 38-year-old forward came off the bench for just the second time in his 20-year NBA career, the only other occasion coming in December of 2007 when he was with Cleveland.
James, sidelined since February 26 with a tendon injury in his right foot, checked in to a standing ovation with the Lakers up 12-9 in the first quarter — going through his traditional hand-chalk toss near the scorer’s table before hitting the floor.
James led the Lakers with 19 points in 27 and a half minutes on court. Troy Brown and Malik Beasley added 18 apiece while Anthony Davis scored 15.
DeMar DeRozan scored 17 points with 10 assists for the Bulls, who are in 10th place in the East, three games ahead of the Washington Wizards for the final play-in tournament spot and just a hair behind Toronto for ninth.
“My hat’s off to the Chicago Bulls,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “They’re sort of fighting to get in position like we are, to secure a position. They came out with a sense of urgency tonight. We came out a little flat, turned the ball over early. We weren’t aggressive enough, physical enough. We let one slip here at home.”
The Lakers, who had gone 8-5 in James’s absence, saw their three-game winning streak end.
They slipped from eighth to ninth in the Western Conference, half a game ahead of Oklahoma City and half a game behind New Orleans and Minnesota.