The Los Angeles Lakers reached the .500 mark for the first time in 14 months by defeating Oklahoma City on Friday.
A victory Sunday against the visiting Chicago Bulls would strengthen their position in the Western Conference playoff race, while also tightening morale during a key stretch without injured star LeBron James.
Los Angeles (37-37) entered Saturday as the eighth seed in the West with eight games remaining in the regular season. Optimism around the team is growing.
“Everyone’s loud,” the Lakers’ Dennis Schroder said. “I’ve seen the bench and everybody’s just standing up and it’s hyped. That’s all I’m saying, being a team, everyone just being happy for each other. That’s what we need. If we’re doing that, we’re at our best and can accomplish a lot with that if we keep doing that going forward.”
While Chicago (35-38) hasn’t been above .500 since standing at 5-4 on Nov. 2, improved play of late has the Bulls in position to be part of the Eastern Conference play-in tournament.
Chicago routed Portland 124-96 on Friday to open a three-game road trip while securing its sixth victory in eight games. The Bulls entered Saturday in possession of 10th place in the East, holding a 2 1/2-game lead for the final play-in spot.
Zach LaVine paced the Bulls on Friday with 33 points and eight assists while Nikola Vucevic had a double-double of 23 points and 15 rebounds. Chicago was without leading scorer DeMar DeRozan (strained right quadriceps), but the Bulls had plenty of answers against a Portland team missing four starters due to injury.
“Come in with the right mindset,” LaVine said. “Obviously, they didn’t have all their big guys. At the end of the day, those guys are going to go out there and play hard. You saw it in the first quarter. We played to our identity, settled down and got the win. Once I was able to set the tone, everyone could follow that and it went from there. We came in with a purpose.”
Set for the finale of a five-game homestand, the Lakers have won three straight, with the past two coming against fellow Western Conference playoff contenders.
Two days after a victory over the Phoenix Suns, Anthony Davis keyed Friday’s victory over the Thunder with 37 points and 15 rebounds. Schroder scored 13 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter, and Lonnie Walker IV had 20 points.
A healthy scratch for three games before Friday, Walker embraced the chance to get accelerated minutes as the Lakers navigate injuries to James (foot) and D’Angelo Russell (hip). Los Angeles is 8-5 since James has been out.
“I would say these last few weeks I’ve had my ups and downs, I’ve had my times where I haven’t really been myself, where I’ve been down,” Walker said. “So I’m very blessed and honored to have an opportunity and play to the best of my capability.”
The Bulls and Lakers will complete their season series in a short span, meeting again Wednesday in Chicago. The Bulls won both meetings last season, snapping the Lakers’ three-game winning streak in the series.
DeRozan averaged 38.0 points against the Lakers last season. Vucevic has posted a double-double in four of the past five meetings.