The Chicago Bulls spoiled superstar LeBron James’s return from a 13-game injury absence on Sunday, beating the Los Angeles Lakers 118-108 to tighten their hold on the final Eastern Conference play-in spot.
As the push to the post-season headed into its final two weeks, the Cleveland Cavaliers clinched their first playoff berth since 2018 with a 108-91 victory over the Houston Rockets.
Jarret Allen tied his season high with 24 points, pulled down 14 rebounds and blocked three shots, while All-Star guard Donovan Mitchell added 22 points for the Cavs, who are assured of one of the top six places in the Eastern Conference to avoid the play-in tournament for the seventh- through 10th-placed teams.
It’s the first time since 1998 that the Cavaliers have reached the playoffs without James, whose 20-year NBA career has included two stints with his hometown team, where he won one of his four titles in 2016.
James said Sunday that the chance to challenge for a fifth title overall, and a second with the Lakers, had driven his rapid return from a torn tendon in his right foot.
All eyes were on the 38-year-old forward at Crypto.com Arena, where he came off the bench for just the second time in his career — the only other occasion coming in December 2007 when he was with Cleveland.
James checked in to a standing ovation with the Lakers, up 12-9 in the first quarter, going through his traditional hand-chalk toss before taking the floor.
He led the Lakers with 19 points in 27 and a half minutes on court. Troy Brown and Malik Beasley added 18 apiece while Anthony Davis scored 15.
But the Bulls crashed the party, Zach LaVine scoring 32 points and DeMar De Rozan adding 17 points and 10 assists as Chicago gave themselves a three-game cushion over the Washington Wizards for the 10th place in the East.
“They came out with a sense of urgency tonight,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “We came out a little flat, turned the ball over early. We weren’t aggressive enough, physical enough.”
The Lakers, who had gone 8-5 in James’s absence, saw their three-game winning streak end.
They slipped from eighth to ninth in the Western Conference, half a game ahead of Oklahoma City and half a game behind New Orleans and Minnesota.
James said seeing his teammates claw out wins in his absence had spurred his injury return.
“It definitely changed my mindset on me coming back and trying to be a part of this. Well, I don’t even 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.”
Elsewhere, Jaylen Brown scored 41 points and pulled down 13 rebounds to lead the Boston Celtics to a 137-93 home rout of the San Antonio Spurs.
Leading scorer Jayson Tatum’s injury absence was no problem for the Celtics, who kept the pressure on Milwaukee in the race for top seed in the East.
Morant leads Grizzlies
Ja Morant returned to the Memphis starting lineup after coming off the bench in his first two games since suspension, scoring 27 points to lead the Grizzlies in a 123-119 victory over the Hawks in Atlanta that pushed Memphis’ winning streak to six games.
The Dallas Mavericks’ downward spiral continued with a 110-104 loss to the Hornets in Charlotte, where Mavs star Luka Doncic received his 16th technical foul of the season, which will trigger an automatic one-game suspension.
After failing to make a basket in the first quarter Doncic finished with 40 points, but it wasn’t enough to stave off a second loss in three days to the hapless Hornets — who are second-to-last in the Eastern Conference.
In the day’s final game, the Minnesota Timberwolves beat the Golden State Warriors 99-96.
The game was decided with 11 seconds left when Karl-Anthony Towns took advantage of Kyle Anderson’s steal from Draymond Green to drain the winning three-pointer.
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