Yes, LeBron came to Chicago Tuesday and he saw greatness in the United Center.
"I definitely recognize the greatness that Mike (Jordan) had in the city," LeBron James was saying outside the visitor's locker room late in the evening. "Pretty much every time I play here I kind of look at the rafters and the jersey retired and when the starting lineups come out, their starting lineup, I always remember when I was a kid watching that (championship) starting lineup and watching the Bulls run through the city, the actual Bulls, run through the city and Jordan's number getting called; you always had that feeling."
Yes, and then like Caesar in the Gallic Wars, James conquered. He dunked, reverse dunked, and reverse dunked again on the way to 36 points and 10 rebounds and a 123-107 victory over the Bulls.
Bulls vs. Lakers game recap
In a game, by the way, in which the Bulls led by 20 points early in the second quarter before becoming spectators on defense so much it seemed they were being asked to sit down because they were blocking the view of the paying customers.
"I didn't like it," Bulls coach Jim Boylen admitted about a defensive effort that saw the 31-36 Lakers shooting 55 percent with 28 fast break points. "They spread us out. You've got to get matched to the Lakers in the half court; we didn't do a good job of that.
"I told the team at halftime," Boylen related, "I was disappointed in the (Lakers) 39-point second quarter."
Of course, the Lakers then scored 43 points in the third quarter, concluding the quarter with a 17-3 run after James went out and 24-3 overall to the end of the third when the Lakers led 98-84. The Bulls did get back within 100-96 with a 12-2 start to the fourth quarter.
But then there came that man.
It was LeBron's world with a 20-foot pullup jumper, a three pointer after Robin Lopez got stuck on a switch trying to stay with James, a driving power dunk again past a helpless, isolated Lopez in which James appeared to be biblical with a Red Sea type parting of Bulls players. That made it 107-99 Lakers with 6:30 left.
Then with 5:03 remaining and the Lakers leading 113-101, Otto Porter Jr. missed a jumper. It was rebounded by Kris Dunn, who handed back to Porter. He drove and tried to pass inside to Lopez. The ball was deflected, stolen by James on the run.
Uh oh. Time to stand up.
James tossed the ball ahead to Josh Hart with now three Lakers running and five Bull watching curiously from behind. Hart threw the ball off the backboard to James, who grabbed the ball with two hands and fired down a reverse slam dunk. Accompanied even by a shimmy and an indication that James isn't quite done yet.
"I always feel bouncy," James said in a jaunty post game media session in which he also expounded on his injuries (unfortunate, but part of life), the Lakers playoff chances (not very good), Russell Westbrook's clash with a fan in Utah (Westbrook was right to defend himself and his family) and his playoff future (this isn't happening again).
"I live being a professional," said James. "Playing every game like it is my last and no matter what is going on, you finish up strong; that's just who I am.
"I would love for this team to be in the post season," James added. "For me to be a part of the post season is something I've always loved. But right now it's not the hand I was dealt. So you play the hand you are dealt until the dealer shuffles the cards and gives you another hand. I'll be watching if we're not in there and it looks like we're not; our chances are slimming down each and every game. This won't be the last time (going for the playoffs)."
The Bulls were led by Lopez with 20 points, Porter with 19 and nine rebounds and Dunn with 18 points, nine assists and seven rebounds.
But for the Bulls, the story was more who wasn't there. Zach LaVine missed his second game with a knee problem, though Boylen said he was optimistic about a LaVine return.
"We don't have enough firepower right now," Boylen acknowledged.
Though perhaps a larger concern was the continued slump for Lauri Markkanen, who had 11 points on four of 17 shooting with zero for eight on threes.
"I've been doing the same stuff. I know it will turn around," said Markkanen, who appeared relaxed and confident in post game comments. "I acknowledge that I'm not playing like I was in February (26 points and 12.2 rebounds in 10 games). But I'm going to keep working the way I do every day because everything feels the same. It's just not going in right now. Defensively, I just try to focus on that right now. I thought every one was going in; they felt good out of my hand. Of course, it's not fun when they are not going in. But I know it will turn around and I will take the same shots."
Markkanen's 11 points matched a low for the month. On the verge of becoming the first Bulls player since Elton Brand to average 20 points and 10 rebounds for a season, Markkanen the last five games is averaging 14.2 points, five below his season average, and 7.6 rebounds. He's shooting 19 percent on threes and 36 percent overall.
"To say something is wrong with him I think would be premature and not correct," Boylen insisted. "To say that we need him to play better for us to have a chance to win is the way to say it. Whether it's rebounding the ball and bringing it up, which he needs to do more of. When he was playing well, he was doing more of that. He needs to make open shots. Talking about Lauri, he makes one or two of those threes at the appropriate time, it may flip the game. So we need him to do that."
The Bulls looked like they might flip the game to start against a staggering Lakers' team that had lost five straight and 11 of 14 to effectively end James' streak of eight straight Finals appearances and 13 straight in the playoffs. The Lakers are six and a half games out of eighth with 15 to play. The Bulls, by the way, dropped to 19-50 and were officially eliminated from the playoffs, missing consecutively for the first time since six straight through 2003-04.
"I don't think their heart is bad, I don't think their effort is bad," Boylen said about his team. "There's times when we make mistakes defensively, game plan mistakes. But we're trying, guys are trying. They're communicating; we're practicing it and we have to get better."
It did look pretty good to start, a 34-16 lead after one quarter, 58 percent shooting, four of six threes with Porter making two, Dunn with another lively start and Lopez owning the inside.
Inside the Locker Room with Kris Dunn
"I thought we were ready to play," said Boylen. "I thought we embraced the moment."
The Bulls bounced out to a 36-16 lead to start the second quarter with a Ryan Arcidiacono steal and jumper, for a time James' scoring rival in the game being the feisty Arcidiacono, who had a dozen points in the first half and 14 points and six assists with his usual pair of charges taken starting for LaVine.
Which for the Bulls, unfortunately, seemed to arouse James in his lone appearance in the United Center this season now that he is in the Western Conference.
"That second quarter we all started to play with more joy, play a little bit more free," said James, who had two points in the first quarter. "Got defensive stops. We were flying around, everyone felt a part. First quarter coming cross country and having to play an early game, 4 p.m for us local time. But we were able to kick into gear the second quarter on."
LeBron thinks Chicago is in the East, but who wants to tell him and make him any madder.
Actually for the requiem we've heard about he and the Lakers, he was especially upbeat before the game. The Lakers canceled their morning practice to sleep in and before the game James was wandering around the locker room, headphones attached, singing along—not particularly on key—with some unusual lyrics that may have gotten him into a street dispute if it wasn't art.
And starting in the second quarter with 14 points, he began to paint another basketball masterpiece, spinning and driving, posting up and rolling, an interior assault the Bulls could not thwart. The Bulls still held onto a 60-55 lead at halftime. But you sensed the avalanche was coming. You could almost hear the rumble and it began to overwhelm the Bulls in the third, the Lakers repeatedly throwing 50 and 60-foot passes ahead for easy scores, the Lakers with seven threes mostly in transition, Wayne Selden Jr. curiously ejected with consecutive technicals for something he said to the officials, and the avalanche of scoring to close the third and into the fourth. You doubted the Bulls were going to turn it around when they went to Cristiano Felicio and Antonio Blakeney for late offense.
Though with LaVine and Markkanen missing in their own ways and LeBron obviously not having given up on the season, it merely became a familiar inevitability for the Bulls and James.
So at 34, the sentiment has been that perhaps it's not the same LeBron.
"It didn't look like that to me," said Markkanen.
Not to us, either. Which is good for the NBA. And it got the Bulls on the late night highlight shows for a change. All hail, LeBron. For one night, anyway.