LeBron James coasted through 8 first-quarter minutes on Tuesday night. The future Hall of Famer was playing at half speed, scoring just 2 points, committing a turnover and allowing the Bulls, playing without Zach LaVine, to race out to a 20-point lead against a beaten down team traveling from the West Coast to begin a brutal four-game road trip. Given the circus that has become the Lakers’ 2018-19 season, James’ only trip to Chicago this season felt like a potential letdown.
But it was still LeBron James. Playing in Chicago. Against the Bulls. The ending was inevitable, and over the final three quarters the LeBron James that has gashed the Bulls for 16 seasons showed up and put on a dazzling display while leading the Lakers back to a victory.
After that quiet first quarter James reminded Bulls fans that, playoff team or not, he hasn’t slowed down in the slightest. In his final 25 minutes, James scored 34 points on 14 of 20 shooting, including four gravity-defying dunks, grabbed seven rebounds and dished out four assists as the Lakers clawed all the way back and ended up running away with a win, outscoring the Bulls by 34 points after the first quarter.
A different James-led team arrived in Chicago on Monday. The Lakers are out of the playoff race with less than a month left in the regular season, and James will miss the postseason for the first time since 2005, when he brought a Cavs team to the United Center and squared off against the likes of Othella Harrington, Chris Duhon and Antonio Davis.
Even James has been placed on a minutes limit after leading the league in minutes per game each of the last two seasons. And while James’ effort has come into question, particularly on the defensive end, he flashed his greatness on Tuesday night, taking control of the game and never letting up as the Bulls did their best to try and slow him down. This game on the heels of a 30-point triple-double on Saturday against the Celtics, a feat he accomplished in just 28 minutes.
James needed just 33 minutes to rack up his 36 and 10 night on Tuesday. He started the second quarter and led the Lakers back, scoring 16 points and dished out two assists, accounting for 21 of the Lakers’ 35 points that brought them back within four.
He didn’t slow down in the third quarter, attacking a Bulls defense that was out of sorts for six straight points, and his pass to Kyle Kuzma for a streaking layup gave the Lakers their first lead since 2-0.
James was just as good to close things out in the fourth quarter. He terrorized the Bulls on switches, twice beating Robin Lopez for a 3-pointer and a drive to the basket that ended with a trademark James slam that put the Bulls up eight. He scored the first nine points of the quarter for the Lakers, and he capped his night off with a reverse dunk that came off a feed from Josh Hart, who lobbed the ball off the backboard to James for the finish.
It was an all too familiar sight for the Bulls. James was making his 39th career appearance at the United Center, the most all-time for opposing players, and was his usual self. Though the Bulls have gotten the best of James in the regular season, they’ve never been able to slow him down individually.
Tuesday marked James’ 18th career 30-point night in the United Center, 10 more than Allen Iverson’s second place mark of 10 such games. And it should have been expected. James said after the game that he’s always taken pride in playing in Chicago.
“I definitely recognize the greatness that Mike had in this city. Pretty much every time I come here I look up at the rafters and looked at the jerseys retired,” he said. “And then the starting lineups come on, as a kid always watching the bulls run through the city – actual bulls run through the city – and then Jordan’s name and number getting called. So you always have that feeling.”
Both Jim Boylen and Lauri Markkanen scoffed at the notion that James has lost a step in his 16th NBA season, and the numbers back it up. Though the Lakers’ season was derailed when James missed five weeks with a groin injury on Christmas Day, and compounded by losing Rajon Rondo, Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball for long stretches of the season, James has still been his usual dominant self.
He’s averaging 27.1 points, 8.6 rebounds and 8.1 assists and is shooting better than 51 percent from the field. Though the defensive criticisms are warranted, and the Anthony Davis fiasco earlier in the year certainly hurt team chemistry, James hasn’t slowed down in the slightest.
I haven’t seen it,” said Jim Boylen when asked about James potentially slowing down. “I’ve been seeing a guy that’s a freight train in transition, a willing passer and a physical defender. So nobody’s perfect, I know that for sure. But he’s as dynamic a guy as there ever has been.”
James showed off all of that on Tuesday. He did to the Bulls what he’s done the last 16 seasons, and ironically enough officially knocked the Bulls out of the playoff contention, like he’s done four other times in the postseason.
The jersey was different, his team’s standing was different but the results remained the same. James came into the United Center and did what he’s always done: Put on a show in the House That MJ Built and beat up on the Bulls in winning fashion.
James sees plenty of value in finishing out his age 34 season strong, and he continued it Tuesday night in Chicago.
“I live being a professional, I live playing every game like it’s my last,” James said. “No matter what’s going on you finish up strong. That’s just who I am.”