The jumbled state of the Western Conference postseason picture ultimately cleared LeBron James’ outlook about returning to the Los Angeles Lakers for the stretch run.
“To hell with the play-in -- we actually can be a top-(six) seed,” James said. “That definitely changed my mindset on me coming back and trying to be a part of this.”
On Sunday, James came back from a 13-game absence, scoring a team-high 19 points in his first action since recovering from a tendon injury in his right foot. While it ultimately wasn’t enough in the Lakers’ 118-108 home loss to Chicago, teammates figure James will be primed for more when Los Angeles visits the Bulls on Wednesday night.
“I just know coming off of injury, you’re kind of thinking about it, testing it out,” Lakers forward Anthony Davis said. “But he looked well on the floor, played well, had a block. ... I’m pretty sure Wednesday, he’ll be himself.”
Sunday’s defeat snapped a three-game winning streak for the Lakers (37-38), who entered Tuesday in ninth place in the West. Before play Tuesday, all that separated the conference’s sixth-place team and 10th-place team was 1 1/2 games.
Chicago (36-39) is in similar straits in the East, entering Tuesday as the No. 10 seed and in possession of the final play-in spot. With seven regular-season games remaining, the Bulls hold a three-game lead on the Washington Wizards for the final slot in the play-in.
The Bulls were unable to sweep a three-game West Coast road trip Monday, losing 124-112 to the Los Angeles Clippers. Chicago allowed the Clippers to shoot 59.3 percent from the field and 50 percent (20-for-40) from long range.
“We knew going in that we were going to be in situations where we were going to have to protect the rim and then scramble and rotate out,” Bulls coach Billy Donovan said. “We’ve really been pretty good most of the year on closeouts, and we didn’t do a good job (Monday) night. Things got opened up. We were late helping, late rotating. I didn’t think our communication on our rotations was great.”
The performance was in contrast to a more disciplined Bulls’ effort on D against the Lakers in the same building Sunday.
“We weren’t aggressive enough, physical enough,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said Sunday. “I thought (the Bulls) were great defensively on that side.”
The Bulls are aiming to sweep the season series from the Lakers for the second straight season.
To do so, they know they’ll quickly need to put the frustrations from the Clippers game behind them.
“We didn’t bring no rhythm whatsoever,” Chicago leading scorer DeMar DeRozan said. “They were hot and stayed hot. We were a step slow. We didn’t give ourselves a chance.”
Alex Caruso (foot soreness) and Javonte Green (knee soreness) missed the game for the Bulls. Both players are listed as questionable for Wednesday.
Zach LaVine (23 points), DeMar DeRozan (21) and Nikola Vucevic (20) led Chicago offensively against the Clippers.
“We got seven (games) left,” DeRozan said. “We gotta start a rhythm.”
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