Andrew Bynum is acutely aware how many Lakers fans spent the offseason coveting Dwight Howard.
Judging by his first three games of the season, Bynum seems determined to prove to every basketball fan in Los Angeles that this team already has a star center.
Kobe Bryant scored 37 points, Bynum had 21 points and 22 rebounds in the first 20-20 game of his career, and the Lakers beat the Houston Rockets 108-99 Tuesday night for their fourth victory in five games.
With healthy knees and plenty of energy after a four-game season-opening suspension, Bynum gave yet another dominant low-post performance. He barely missed his career-high of 23 rebounds in his second career 20-rebound game, playing a team-high 38 minutes.
”I’m getting a lot more touches, so it’s easier to be confident,” said Bynum, who’s averaging 22.7 points and 17 rebounds in his first three games. ”Before the practices every day, I’m putting in work, so it’s paying off.”
Although Bynum has been increasingly outstanding when healthy in the past two years, he turned up in multiple trade rumors during the offseason, most surrounding Orlando’s All-Star center. After several years of trade speculation, Bynum insists he’s immune to it — and it’s reflected in his current play.
”We all know the amount of talent he has, and he’s really worked on it,” Bryant said of Bynum. ”The thing that I like about him is that he has an engine inside of him, and he wants to dominate. He has ambition to be great.”
The Lakers also got 14 points from fellow 7-footer Pau Gasol, who was nearly traded to the Rockets last month in a three-team deal for Chris Paul. Bynum and Gasol patrolled the paint on defense and repeatedly beat Houston inside, combining for 17 points in the second half.
”It’s not just tonight, but the way he’s played these three games,” Gasol said of Bynum. ”He’s been really aggressive, really decisive, and just pursuing every ball. I’m glad to see him with this level of intensity and energy, because it takes desire and will.”
What’s the best part about Bynum’s dominance to Lakers coach Mike Brown? The big guy still isn’t in game shape.
”He’s still working on his conditioning,” Brown said. ”His conditioning is getting a little better. If he can get it to a point where it’s great, oh my gosh.”
The Lakers survived a tight fourth quarter with Bryant’s brilliance and tough defense, holding the Rockets without a field goal for just under six minutes. Kobe scored seven consecutive points down the stretch of the Lakers’ third straight win over the Rockets at home.
Kyle Lowry scored 22 points and Luis Scola added 20 for the Rockets, who opened a three-game trip with their eighth loss in 11 road games against the Lakers. Kevin Martin had 12 points on 5-of-17 shooting, missing 7 of his 8 3-point attempts.
”We played an outstanding game all the way to the fourth quarter,” Scola said. ”Towards the end, we missed some shots that we usually make, and they made some tough shots. But we were kind of expecting that, because Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol are big players. Bynum is a tough center to play against. He’s pretty big and athletic, and he looks like he’s very focused. He got a lot of rebounds and had a good game.”
Rockets swingman Courtney Lee had to be helped off the court with 10:40 to play after he collapsed in obvious pain from his right leg on a noncontact play in front of the Lakers’ bench. Lee, who scored nine points, couldn’t put weight on the same leg that bothered him with cramps during training camp.
After the game, Lee said the nasty-looking injury was only a strained calf muscle.
”I have no idea what happened,” Lee said. ”I went to the hole, got ready to run back and then my leg just buckled and I went down. I didn’t feel anything at the time, so I didn’t know what it was. So I tried to get back up run again, and I couldn’t.”
The Lakers were smooth down the stretch in their seventh game in 10 days, matching Oklahoma City for the NBA’s busiest early-season schedule.
Houston scored six straight points to trim Los Angeles’ lead to 93-89 with 3:54 to play, but Bryant hit a jumper and converted a three-point play on consecutive possessions before willing home a fallaway jumper with 1:59 left, putting the Lakers ahead by 11.
”We fought back a couple of times and hung around, but Kobe making a couple of those turnaround fadeaways, and those are tough shots to defend,” Houston coach Kevin McHale said. ”We were trying to get our guys to come over and be more aggressive, but we haven’t yet gotten to the point where we’re trusting everybody on defense to come over. It’s still a process.”
NOTES: Lakers F Josh McRoberts sat out with a sprained left big toe. … Fans near courtside included Ashton Kutcher, Alex Rodriguez, Torrie Wilson, Cindy Crawford, Rande Gerber, Tom Petty and Milwaukee Brewers owner Mark Attanasio.