The sellout and season-high crowd of 23,067 arrived early and actually acted and sounded interested, including Michael Jordan, who sat with Bulls general manager John Paxson in a luxury suite.

Flashbulbs popped. Voices strained.

The big-time moments—those that, say, have fans smuggling in disposable cameras and screaming for autographs—are few and far between at the United Center these days.

The annual arrival of the Lakers marks one, and not just from a fans' perspective.

Bulls players treat the moment like Christmas morning, and attack it with similar excitement, which naturally raises the following question: Why can't they play this hard and with this much passion all the time?

An 88-81 loss on Saturday night didn't make that answer any less elusive, even if the result snapped a two-game home winning streak in the series and dropped the Bulls 30 games below .500 with their sixth straight loss.

The foul-filled game featured nine lead changes and eight ties. The Bulls were only down 74-72 with 5 minutes 25 seconds remaining.

That's when Kobe Bryant, who led all scorers with 35 points, took over.

He scored on back-to-back driving layups. Then came a jumper in Kendall Gill's face. Next was a pump fake and lefty scoop under Tyson Chandler.

Bryant's next basket—another jumper—pushed the lead back to five with 35 seconds remaining. He later added two free throws for 12 straight points—and a game-saver.

"That's why he's a superstar," Gill said.

Shaquille O'Neal added 16 points and 15 rebounds for the Lakers.

For the Bulls, Eddy Curry scored 16 points, but he played only 48 fourth-quarter seconds after picking up his fifth foul.

Chandler, in an extremely active performance, added 10 points and 16 rebounds. Kirk Hinrich had 15 points and 12 assists, but combined with Jamal Crawford to shoot 8-for-29.

Atrocious free-throw shooting—16-for-31—also contributed to the loss. Chandler missed all eight attempts.

"I got tense," Chandler said.

Saturday marked Scott Skiles' first game as Bulls coach in the recent mini-rivalry, so he wouldn't hazard a guess as to whether or not the aforementioned dynamic—of players getting more excited to face the Lakers—exists.

"But if that's true, the answer is yes, definitely, I have a problem with that," Skiles said.

Still, Skiles has been around the league long enough to know that it can happen.

"There's no doubt in my mind that teams which do not have good records in the NBA selectively bring it," Skiles said. "We're trying to change the culture of the way we operate on a daily basis."

Crawford, who was in an extremely philosophical mood, had no answers for why such efforts seemingly come out of the blue.

"I've been trying to figure that out because we're not as bad as our record shows," Crawford said. "I promise we're not. Look around our team.

"But at this point, you have to find different reasons to get motivated. You shouldn't have to, but this for us is like a playoff game—the atmosphere, the sellout crowd, people calling for tickets.

"People get fired up for games like this. They were favored to win the championship at the beginning of the year."

And the Bulls were favored to make the playoffs.

Maybe by the time the Lakers next show up, the question of why the Bulls don't bring consistent effort will have been solved.