There’s an alternate universe out there where the 2021-22 Lakers are off to a hot start to the season behind the playmaking of Lonzo Ball, the scoring of DeMar DeRozan and the do-everything defensive mastery of Alex Caruso.
But that’s not the reality we live in, and the team with former Lakers in Ball and Caruso alongside DeRozan — a Compton native who has long wanted to return home — and UCLA’s Zach LaVine continued their strong start to the year by raining threes on one end and playing excellent, swarming defense on the other, allowing the Chicago Bulls to beat the Lakers 121-103.
L.A. falls to 8-7 with the loss, and 3-4 since LeBron James’ abdominal strain took him out of the lineup.
DeRozan, who wanted to sign with his hometown Lakers this offseason before the trade for Russell Westbrook, had a phenomenal performance with a game-high 38 points on 15-23 shooting. The starting backcourt of Ball and LaVine added some sweet perimeter shooting, with 13 combined three-pointers, with the former Lakers No. 2 overall pick dropping a season-high 27 points on his old team while his fellow UCLA Bruin LaVine chipped in 26 of his own.
But the big story coming into the night was the return of Caruso, whose highlight dunks and receding hairline made him an instant fan-favorite as he developed into an extremely valuable role player and defensive specialist who fit perfectly alongside James and Anthony Davis during the 2019-20 title run. The Lakers, as you are probably aware, could have kept Caruso in free agency this summer but lowballed him — ostensibly to save on the luxury tax — and opted to give Talen Horton-Tucker a bigger role instead of matching Caruso’s offer from the Bulls.
Caruso was welcomed back with a four-minute tribute video highlighting some of his best moments in purple and gold through the championship celebration in the Orlando bubble, and was and greeted with a standing ovation from the Staples Center faithful.
Laker fans offered ovations for ex-Angeleno Bulls starters Lonzo Ball, DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine, and a ROAR for Alex Caruso pic.twitter.com/XFapPfnUNv— Cooper Halpern (@CooperHalpern) November 16, 2021
ACFresh, the Carushow, NBA Champion.— Los Angeles Lakers (@Lakers) November 16, 2021
Welcome back, Alex. pic.twitter.com/deoWfO4i2M
Davis, the Chicago native who’s trying to use James’ absence as an opportunity to seize a bigger leadership role on the Lakers, struggled against a superbly executed defensive strategy from the undersized Bulls. Chicago, often led by his former teammate Caruso, mobbed Davis in the paint when he attempted to establish himself in the low post and quickly rotated back when he passed out of the double — or sometimes even triple — teams.
Davis grew visibly more frustrated throughout the night as the Bulls had their way with the Lakers’ defense, and was ejected late in the third quarter when he earned his second technical after yelling at the referee to give him time to put his shoe back on. He finished with a quiet 20 points and 6 rebounds on 6-9 shooting in 28 minutes.
AD just got ejected...on the baseline...with one shoe on.— ClutchPoints (@ClutchPointsApp) November 16, 2021
Tell us how you feel, twitterverse pic.twitter.com/FtsNoH0z7q
The Bulls’ plan to make anyone other than Davis beat them worked brilliantly, as the Lakers shot just 6-32 from 3-point range, despite tons of open looks.
The silver linings for the Lakers on Monday came in the forms of Russell Westbrook and especially Talen Horton-Tucker, who continued to impress in just his second game of the season. Horton-Tucker dropped a career-high 28 points on 9-19 shooting, including hitting four of the Lakers’ six made threes, and also threw down an emphatic slam dunk in the fourth to demonstrate that his surgically repaired thumb is feeling just fine.
Westbrook’s hot shooting in the first half was all that was keeping the Lakers in the game, but he cooled off after halftime as the Bulls pulled away. Russ finished with a team-high 25 points, 6 rebounds and 8 assists on 8-19 shooting (0-6 from deep) in 31 minutes.
Although the Bulls are a much better team than the Minnesota Timberwolves, this game still felt like nearly the same level of disaster for the Lakers as their blowout loss on Friday. The same purple and gold team that expected to compete for an NBA championship is now just 8-7, and while injuries have played a role, they desperately need LeBron James back to compete with other contenders. We’ll see if he’s able to rejoin the Lakers’ active roster when they kick off their five-game road trip in Milwaukee on Tuesday.