Preview: Pau Gasol to face Kobe Bryant one last time at Staples Center

Kobe Bryant is expected to return from a sore shoulder to face Pau Gasol and the Chicago Bulls (25-19) on Thursday night at Staples Center.

Gasol helped the Lakers (9-38) win two NBA titles, but left as a free agent to the Bulls two summers ago.

The Bulls have been struggling to stay healthy this season, but are still one of the top-four teams in the Eastern Conference.

Veteran guard Lou Williams is doubtful for the Lakers because of an upper-respiratory infection.  Bryant sat on Tuesday night against the Dallas Mavericks but is likely to play.

The Bulls will be without Mike Dunleavy (back), Nikola Mirotic (appendicitis), Joakim Noah (shoulder) and Kirk Hinrich (quadriceps).

Guard Derrick Rose is expected to play despite recent hamstring and back issues.

Key matchup

At 35-years old, Gasol is still an extremely productive player in the NBA, averaging 16.6 points, 10.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists a night.

Gasol is shooting 46.8% from the field, much lower than his efficiency when the Lakers were winning titles in 2009 (56.7%) and 2010 (53.6%).

Gasol will presumably start at center for the Bulls, and Bryant at small forward (or potentially shooting guard in place of Williams). Gasol and Bryant will face each other only twice before Bryant retires after the season.

After Thursday night's battle, the Lakers visit Chicago on Feb. 21.

Bryant, is averaging 15.8 points a game this season and shooting 34.7% from the field.

Together, in their respective primes, Bryant and Gasol were a powerful tandem.

X-factor

Jimmy Butler has been Chicago's best player this season, averaging 22.3 points and 4.2 assists a game.

Butler is also a feisty defender, who likes to play big minutes.  He'll probably draw Bryant throughout the game.

The Lakers also need to deal with players like Taj Gibson, Bobby Portis, Doug McDermott and Rose.

Julius Randle is expected to keep his starting spot over the short term over rookie Larry Nance Jr. who recently missed four games because of a sore knee.

The Lakers were routinely beaten soundly in Nance's absence, then the team came within one play of knocking off the Mavericks on Nance's return Monday.

Outlook

The Bulls are vulnerable, given their various injuries.  The Lakers have a credible shot, but shouldn't be favored to win.

Email Eric Pincus at eric.pincus@gmail.com and follow him on Twitter @EricPincus.

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