The return of Kobe Bryant after some rest will be about whether or not the Los Angeles Lakers are actually better off without him. Playing against the Chicago Bulls might not be the best way for his team to find out.
The Lakers were only the fourth team to beat the Golden State Warriors in an impressive win that wasn’t as close as the 115-105 scoreline suggested. Nick Young and Ronnie Price of all players led a group that seemed more like a team than usual, not having to pass and move the ball through the same player, as the offense looked quicker and a lot more unpredictable. The defense, ranked second from the bottom in the NBA, looked good and opportunistic for most of the game.
The Lakers might have it more difficult for them on the road against Chicago. The Bulls do tend to mess up at home this season (only 6-5), but their recent form (four straight wins, seven of the last eight) suggests that things are heading in the right direction. Having everyone available for more than one night (except for Doug McDermott and now also the injured Kirk Hinrich) has been a big boost as well.
Derrick Rose isn’t just healthy and playing – he’s doing it at the highest of levels. After Jimmy Butler and Pau Gasol took on most of the scoring burdens this season, Rose has been more and more dominant, not to mention accurate, in recent games, taking it upon himself to be the main executor in the fourth quarter, scoring a combined 25 points in the final period in the last two games, despite not getting as much minutes as he would like. Having a good backup like Aaron Brooks (11.2 points, 3.2 assists) helps manage the minutes.
Jimmy Butler had an off night but overall has been the Bulls’ best player this season. He is averaging 21.7 points per game with 6.2 rebounds a night. He has been Harden-esque with his ability to get to the line (8.2 shots a night, 82.5% from the line) and his defense, which will be focused on Kobe Bryant and his wayward shooting this time (37.2% from the field) should prove to be a bother for anyone facing him.
The Lakers aren’t just bad defensive against a very much improved Chicago offense, but they’re awful on the boards (48.4% rebounding rate). The Bulls? Yes, you guessed it: fourth in the NBA at 51.5%. Early on it seems like another one of those games in which Byron Scott stands with his hands crossed and a shocked face, but maybe something changed in the win over the Warriors, and Bryant will continue to allow Nick Young, Jeremy Lin and Ronnie Price to be just as important as him.