Most every team has given Kobe Bryant a special introduction during this farewell tour of his, but the Chicago Bulls might have topped them all by having his former teammate, Pau Gasol, present his close friend via a pre-recorded segment.
“It’s my honor to introduce to you for the last time at United Center my former teammate and my friend, from Lower Merion High School, No. 24: Kobe Bryant,” Gasol said from the Chicago videoboard above center court.
Though the Lakers fell, 126-115, Bryant was nonetheless able to enjoy his final time on the floor with the man he won two championships with in 2009 and 2010.
“We’re like brothers,” Bryant said. “It’s so strange: We always thought we’d be retiring on the same team and going out together. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case. But to have him do that at the beginning of the game means so much to me.”
Despite the heartwarming pregame, both teams switched into their competitive gears as soon as the contest tipped off.
The Lakers (11-46) converted Chicago’s four-point halftime lead into a 66-66 tie early in the third quarter, as Bryant heated up by hitting four fadeaway jumpers within the first four minutes.
But the Bulls (29-26) gored their visitors from there. E’Twaun Moore scored 15 points on 6-of-6 shooting in the third alone, leading Chicago to end the period on a 31-15 run and take a lead it would never surrender.
“We just lost our composure,” head coach Byron Scott said. “Stopped getting back on defense and started focusing on the referees. And (we) started focusing on us missing shots instead of focusing in on the Bulls. … We’re not good enough right now to do those types of things.”
Though a Lakers run brought the deficit back down to 108-105 with five minutes remaining, the Bulls once again turned up the pressure late in the quarter to finish off their double-digit win.
Chicago was red-hot from both the 3-point and free throw lines, shooting 13-of-19 from deep and 25-of-26 at the charity stripe. Their marks were the best by any team from both areas since 2012.
Chicago also handed out 30 assists to Los Angeles’ 13. That passing had just about everyone involved, as six Bulls finished with at least 16 points.
With leading scorer Jimmy Butler sitting out due to a knee strain, Moore powered his team with a career-high 26 points, while Gasol provided a bit of everything, including 21 points, seven rebounds, five assists and five blocks.
On the other end, Bryant continued to be the Lakers’ go-to weapon, finishing with 22 points. Though he shot 7-of-13 from inside the arc, he was a dismal 1-of-7 from downtown.
Meanwhile, Julius Randle asserted himself by rolling off a 22-point, 12-rebound effort, despite a formidable challenge from Gasol and the rest of Chicago’s frontcourt.
“JR, right now, is the least of my worries,” Scott said. “The young man is really starting to understand what he needs to do. … Efficient is something that we expect him to be each and every night. And I thought tonight was no different. Like I’ve said before, he’s basically, if you play him 30 minutes, a walking double-double.”
Russell Back Among the Five
D’Angelo Russell is back in the starting lineup and there to stay, as Scott announced the the rookie would finish the season as the team’s first-string point guard.
Scott cited Russell’s “growth and maturity” for putting the 19-year-old back among the starters.
“I like what I saw tonight, and I like what I’ve been seeing in the last couple of months,” Scott said.
Russell finished with 15 points and six assists in his first start since Dec. 12.
He has consistently said that he doesn’t mind coming off the bench, but took his reestablished role as a challenge.
“I don’t want anybody to take it the wrong way, but you feel like your best players are your starters,” Russell said. “I feel like I’m gonna keep the confidence and say I’m one of the best players. So I feel like I want to keep proving that I deserve to start and deserve to be out there and play crunch-time minutes.
“With these last few games, I want to show that I have to be out there. Build that trust with the coach that he has to put me out on the floor.”
Jordan Clarkson scored 20 points with nine rebounds. … The Lakers went just 7-of-21 on 3-pointers and 22-of-33 on free throws. … The Bulls shot 61.9 percent in the third quarter. … A crowd of 23,143 sold out United Center for Bryant’s final game in Chicago.