It was an active day for the Lakers, a checklist almost filled in the span of a few hours.
Kobe Bryant played his final game at the United Center, the arena made famous by one of his heroes and, indeed, career-long targets, Michael Jordan.
Rookie D’Angelo Russell returned to the starting lineup against the Chicago Bulls 21/2 months after losing his spot. Julius Randle had a double-double in only three quarters, his 23rd this season.
The empty box on the list, to no one’s general surprise, was a 126-115 loss Sunday to the Bulls.
The Lakers were in the game, then they weren’t, and then they were again before fading one last time on a night their defense was too pliant.
In fact, according to basketball-reference.com, it was the first time the Bulls ever made at least 55% of their field goals, 65% from three-point range and 95% from the free-throw line.
Where to begin? With Bryant, by a nose over the young ones. People weren’t nearly as focused on his stats — 22 points on eight-for-20 shooting — as his actions and comments.
He hugged former teammate Pau Gasol after the game, shared some words with him and hugged him again. Bryant wasn’t necessarily melancholy, though it was something in that ZIP Code after Gasol had 21 points, seven rebounds, five assists and five blocks.
“It’s so strange. We always thought we’d be retiring on the same team,” Bryant said, obviously reminiscing about their two championships together.
Bryant was less sentimental about another former teammate. It was a what-if question about regrets with how his fiery relationship ended with Shaquille O’Neal — three championships in eight seasons together.
“It was always the challenge of, ‘Kobe can’t win without Shaq,’ right?” Bryant said. “If I went my whole career and we had won championships, God bless you [media] guys, but guys would be saying at the Hall of Fame, ‘He won with Shaq.’
“I didn’t want to hear that. I knew I had the determination to do it and it was either sink or swim. At some point I was going to take that challenge and it was either you guys are right or I’m right.”
As Bryant completes the final 25 games of his career, Russell will start the final 25 this season, according to Coach Byron Scott.
The second pick in last year’s draft did some good stuff on the court Sunday, scoring 15 points and adding six assists.
Bulls forward Pau Gasol hugs Lakers forward Kobe Bryant after a Feb. 21 game in Chicago.(Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images)
Lakers forward Kobe Bryant tries to get by Bulls defender Taj Gibson (22).(Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images)
Bulls guard E’Twaun Moore grabs a loose ball away from Lakers guard Jordan Clarkson (6) in the first half.(Tannen Maury / EPA)
Lakers forward Kobe Bryant (24) keeps the ball away from Bulls guard E’Twaun Moore (55) during the first half.(Nuccio DiNuzzo / Chicago Tribune)
Lakers forward Kobe Bryant (24) looks to pass as he is guarded by Bulls guard Mike Dunleavy, left, and forward Taj Gibson (22) in the second half.(Tannen Maury / EPA)
Lakers forward Kobe Bryant arrives at The United Center before a game against the Bulls.(Paul Beaty / Associated Press)
Lakers guard D’Angelo Russell has his layup challenged by Bulls center Pau Gasol during their game Sunday in Chicago.(Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images)
Lakers forward Kobe Bryant speaks to the media before his final game against the Chicago Bulls at the United Center.(Jonathan Daniel / Getty Images)
Lakers guard Kobe Bryant, left, greets Bulls guard Derrick Rose’s son P.J. Rose 3, right before a game at the United Center.(Paul Beaty / Associated Press)
“I feel like I’ve still got something to prove,” Russell said. “I don’t want anybody to take it the wrong way but you feel like your best players are your starters. I want to just keep proving that I deserve to start. I want to show that I have to be out there, build that trust with my coach that he has to put me on the floor.”
Russell was demoted 20 games into the season, a surprise given his immense importance to the Lakers’ future. He had started two games since then because of injury reasons.
He smiled when asked about the 22 points and 12 rebounds taken by Randle.
“I told him, and I’ve just kept preaching, ‘Let’s grow together,’” Russell said.
The Lakers’ youth did a solid job on a night that belonged to Bryant, who, after so many years of targeting Jordan’s six titles, was merely reverential Sunday.