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LeBron James back in familiar role: Bulls killer at the United Center

LeBron James’ critics have come out of the woodwork this season.

After eight consecutive NBA Finals appearances, he likely will end up missing the postseason with the Lakers. That has to mean James’ reign is near its end, right?

The Bulls didn’t get that memo.

And neither did James.

Doing what he has done so often at the United Center, James helped the struggling Lakers overcome a 20-point deficit Tuesday to beat the Bulls 123-107.

“LeBron is still the best,’’ Bulls guard Zach LaVine said. “He’s a stat-breaker. He’s having a career year almost right now, just in the way he’s scoring and with his rebounds and assists. His percentages are still the same. Dude is a freak. What is LeBron, 34? He dunks on the same amount of people still. He’s shooting the three ball way better. He pulls up from, like, 35 feet every other game. He’s a freak of nature.’’

James had 36 points and 10 rebounds. In one three-minute showcase in the fourth quarter, James made an 18-foot pull-up jumper, shot a three-pointer in the face of Robin Lopez, threw down a nasty one-handed dunk, then topped it all off with a reverse dunk on Josh Hart’s off-the-glass pass.

“I haven’t seen [any decline],’’ Bulls coach Jim Boylen said. “I see a guy that’s a freight train in transition and a willing passer and a physical defender. Nobody is perfect, I know that for sure.

“I mean he’s as dynamic a guy as there ever has been.’’

James has played the role of Bulls killer throughout his career, including when the organization had its best chance to return to greatness. He sent Derrick Rose and the rest of the Bulls home in the 2010-11 Eastern Conference finals.

All these years later and with a completely different roster, James is still proving to be too much for the Bulls (19-50).

‘‘I recognize the greatness that [Michael Jordan] had in this city,’’ James said. “Pretty much every time I play here, I look up at the rafters at the retired jersey. And then when the starting lineups come on, I always remember when I was a kid, watching that lineup and the actual Bulls run through the city and then Jordan’s name and number getting called. You always have that feeling.’’

James, however, wasn’t the only reason for the Bulls’ latest stumble. With LaVine still sidelined with a strained right knee, a majority of the scoring duties fell to Lauri Markkanen and Otto Porter Jr.


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Porter finished with 19 points on 5-for-14 shooting, but Markkanen proved to be the real head-scratcher, struggling for the sixth consecutive game.

The second-year big man finished 4-for-17 from the field for 11 points, and in March, he’s averaging 18.3 points but shooting a dismal 31.6 percent from three-point range.

“I acknowledge that I’m not playing like I was in February,’’ Markkanen said. “Keep working the way I do, and I know it will [come] because everything feels the same. It’s just not going in right now.’’

Then there was the Bulls’ leaky defense, which allowed 39 points in the second quarter and an atrocious 43 points in the third.

“I thought we dropped our heads a little bit when we didn’t make shots,’’ Boylen said of the defensive woes. “We’ve got to communicate, and you’ve got to get matched to the Lakers before halfcourt. We didn’t do a good job of that.’’

As for LaVine, after making it sound as though his season might be up in the air Monday, it appears that he could return to try to finish out the season. He remains day-to-day.