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Lakers fall to Bulls, and below .500 again, in LeBron James’ return to play

Lakers forward LeBron James leans backward into the forearm of Bulls guard Alex Caruso while working the post.
Lakers forward LeBron James, defended by Bulls guard Alex Caruso, returned to play Sunday after a month’s absence because of a foot injury. He scored 19 points in a rare game off the bench, but the Lakers lost 118-108.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)
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LeBron James stood at the scorer’s table midway through the first quarter early Sunday afternoon, furiously shaking chalk into his palms.

Around Crypto.com Arena, cameras came out to capture the moment as he threw the powder into the air.

He was back, the kind of thing that could change everything for the Lakers.

Big picture, it’s exactly what the Lakers need, the trajectory of their season dramatically changing as they near full health.

Yet Sunday, the surprise return, in part,translated into a turnover-riddled mess with no real purpose in a 118-108 loss to the Chicago Bulls.

Players inside the Lakers’ locker room didn’t find out James would be back until after his pregame workout Sunday, the type of addition that does so much good long term while throwing the short term into a bit of chaos.

Lakers forward Anthony Davis took advantage of undersized Thunder on Friday night to finish with 37 points and 15 rebounds in critical victory Friday.

March 25, 2023

He came off the bench for just the second time in his career, joining the Lakers for their final eight games of the season.

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In his return, James scored 19 points. Troy Brown Jr. and Malik Beasley each had 18, while Dennis Schroder contributed 17 and Austin Reaves 13.

Anthony Davis scored 15 points and shot six for eight from the field — Beasley, Brown, James, Reaves and Schroder all attempting more shots.

The Lakers turned the ball over 18 times, leading to 34 Chicago points.

“He trusts his doctors, and he trusts himself, and he was able to come back today,” Davis said of James. “Unfortunately, we weren’t able to get the win, but he’s feeling good. It will be good to have him for the next seven where we’ll be able to finish this thing out.”

Sunday required big-picture thinking to distract from the on-court action, a game in which the Lakers (37-38) trailed by 21 points and were outmuscled and outplayed by Chicago (36-38).

The loss ended the Lakers’ three-game winning streak, with James’ return forcing coach Darvin Ham to alter his rotations with Rui Hachimura failing to log any minutes for the first time since the Lakers acquired him.

Yet James’ return — which came after rapid upgrades Saturday and Sunday morning as he moved from “out” to “doubtful” to “questionable” before being cleared — gives the Lakers a shot to end their season on an even stronger note.

“To hell with the play-in — we actually can be a top-six seed,” James said. “That definitely changed my mindset on me coming back and trying to be a part of this, obviously, so — well, I don’t really want to say changed my mindset, it just enhanced what I was trying to do as far as my workouts, as far as my treatment and everything.

“They played such great basketball and I was just ecstatic, from me being in a boot, to me getting out of a boot, to you guys saw me on the sidelines just feeling such — happy about what the guys are doing, so definitely want to be a part of it.”

James said he suffered a torn tendon in his right foot, with two doctors telling him that he would need to have surgery.

He said he visited the “LeBron James of feet, and he told me I shouldn’t” have surgery.

“The doctors told me I was healing faster than anybody they’ve seen before with the injury,” James said.

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The Lakers were again missing point guard D’Angelo Russell, who sat for a second consecutive game because of a hip injury. They also still don’t have reserve center Mo Bamba, who is recovering from an ankle sprain.

On Sunday, the Bulls dictated almost every minute of the game. Led by Zach LaVine’s 32 points, Chicago spent most of the game comfortably in control, the Bulls’ hot shooting combining with more defensive force than the Lakers could handle.

“We weren’t aggressive enough, physical enough,” Ham said.

Some of that can be attributed to the team getting upended in some ways by James’ return, potentially a huge step forward even if it began with a stumble Sunday.

“The most important for me is Monday morning when I wake up tomorrow and step out of bed and see what happens with that,” James said.

The Lakers, and presumably James, play the Bulls again Wednesday in Chicago.

“He’s a big part of our team, and him coming back with eight games left, it gives us the time to work out the kinks that we will have when there’s not so much time,” Davis said. “It gives him time to get in a rhythm and suit up for this game, then two games left or three games left. Even though he’s a … hell of a player … he could use one game and be fine. But we’ll be fine. Like I said, we’re gonna see these guys Wednesday. We’re gonna come out and play with more a sense of desperation.”

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