Short-handed Bulls fight to the end, but LeBron James too much in crunch time

Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg snickered after giving his answer, but he wasn’t necessarily joking.

Asked before the game Saturday against the Cavaliers which player he planned to start against LeBron James to try to slow him down, Hoiberg said, ‘‘The whole team.’’

It still wasn’t enough. James notched the first regular-season triple-double of his career at the United Center, and the Cavaliers held on for a 114-109 victory against the Bulls. Denzel Valentine scored a career-high 34 points for the Bulls.

James finished with 33 points, 12 rebounds and 12 assists and continued to amaze Hoiberg with what he’s accomplishing in his 15th NBA season.

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‘‘He’s obviously playing at as high a level as he has his entire career,’’ Hoiberg said. ‘‘He’s doing so many things to make the game easier. If you’re one second off him, he’s making that on-time, on-target pass.

‘‘It’s fun to watch him. It’s not fun to play against him.’’

Especially short-handed. The Bulls played without guards Kris Dunn (turf toe) and Zach LaVine (tendinitis in left knee) and forwards Lauri Markkanen (back) and Noah Vonleh (right toe). Center Robin Lopez was inactive, too.

But even with a makeshift lineup, the Bulls made a game of it. They tied the score at 105 on a three-pointer by Cam Payne with 1:41 left before James took over. First he assisted on a tiebreaking four-point play by Jordan Clarkson with 1:27 left, then he increased the Cavaliers’ lead to six with a jumper over Paul Zipser with 39 seconds to play.

The Bulls (24-45) should thank James, especially because their loss — combined with a victory by the Knicks — dropped them back down to the eighth-worst record in the league in their quest for a high lottery pick.

‘‘It’s so easy for him right now,’’ Hoiberg said of James. ‘‘The game is effortless. LeBron wants to be a passer first. That’s where he was hurting us early. And then he got loose and got to the rim. In the second half, we did a much better job. We held that team to 45 [points] and gave ourselves a chance to win.’’

Hoiberg can thank Valentine for that. He shot 13-for-20 from the field, including 8-for-11 from three-point range, had seven rebounds and handed out six assists.

‘‘I was just trying to be aggressive,’’ Valentine said. ‘‘With Zach being out, I knew that we needed a scorer out there and somebody to make plays. Kris was out and Lauri, too, so I knew we were very limited. But I just wanted to be aggressive. Coach kept coming to me, and I was just playing confident.’’

Confidence is one thing, but elite talent — as James displayed — is another.

‘‘It’s kind of frustrating because you’re playing your hardest and you just can’t do anything about it,’’ Valentine said about facing James. ‘‘He’s hitting tough shots, and that’s why he’s the best player on the planet.’’

‘‘I feel great personally,’’ James said afterward. ‘‘I had already hit the switch before the trade deadline. I’m having a heck of a time playing the game right now, no matter who is in the lineup for us.

‘‘We’re not winning as much as we would like, but we’re still figuring out ways to get wins, which is very tough in this league. The joy of the game is pretty high right now.’’

Follow me on Twitter @suntimes_hoops.

Email: jcowley@suntimes.com