Even though his fascination with playing for the Bulls has faded, Kobe Bryant heard the United Center cheers, both then and now.
"A couple of my friends played against the Bulls when [the 'Kobe' chants] took place [earlier this season]," Bryant said Tuesday night. "They called me and said they heard something that was just crazy. I was shocked by it."
Nothing is shocking anymore about Bulls collapses, and they offered up another substantial one in a 103-91 loss to the Lakers at the United Center.
Recalling fourth-quarter meltdowns earlier this season against the Knicks and Raptors, the Bulls watched the Lakers rip off a 14-2 run to turn an 83-81 game into a laugher and drop their home mark to 5-6.
The Bulls trailed 86-81 after Sasha Vujacic hit three straight free throws when official Joey Crawford whistled a borderline foul on Kirk Hinrich during a three-point attempt.
Following an Aaron Gray dunk, the Bulls failed to score on eight straight possessions, capped when Bryant stripped Hinrich and fed Lamar Odom for a breakaway dunk. The Bulls missed five shots and committed three turnovers during the stretch.
"It's frustrating; use any word you want," an ineffective Ben Gordon said. "I don't know what to say."
Neither did anybody else when Ben Wallace grabbed one of his mere five rebounds and threw an outlet pass to Tommy Edwards, the public address announcer. Luol Deng, the intended target, had raced upcourt and wasn't looking.
The Lakers scored 45 points off second chances and Bulls turnovers.
"That's going to catch up to you," coach Scott Skiles said.
There were no "Kobe" chants this night. But Bryant was cheered nicely during player introductions, threw down an alley-oop dunk for the game's first basket and finished with 18 points and six rebounds.
Vujacic came off the bench to score a team-high 19 points.
"It was a fun night," Bryant said. "It's always good to come here and play. It's one of my favorite places to play."
And it felt the opposite to dissect yet another Bulls collapse.
"We have definite problems we need to try to get solved," Skiles said. "I'm not going to think clearly if I'm walking around in a frustrated state all the time."
Deng's 26 points led the Bulls. Hinrich added 17 points and eight assists but committed six of the Bulls' 18 turnovers.
Gordon continued his season-long slump with just eight points on 3-of-9 shooting.
"It has been a struggle to sustain anything," Skiles said.
Exhibit A would have been Andres Nocioni and Tyrus Thomas keeping the Bulls alive in the first half.
Bryant was quiet in the first half with Hinrich, Deng and Nocioni taking turns on him, and he shot 3 of 10. But he heated up to start the third quarter, hitting four straight shots over Hinrich, all of them difficult.
"He wants to do well," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said before the game. "He has Chicago fever a little bit. He actually had a desire to be here. We tried to fulfill it and it didn't work out. So there's something there."
Something called motivation, which is something the Bulls need to find—quickly.
"I can say nobody in here has given up," Wallace said. "We're going to keep fighting. It can only get better. It can't get no worse."
Lakers 103, Bulls 91