Bynum returns as Lakers end Nuggets' win streak
Pau Gasol was impressed with Andrew Bynum's comeback. A decrease in his own minutes to accommodate his fellow 7-footer wasn't too shabby, either.
Kobe Bryant scored 33 points, Gasol added 27 points and 19 rebounds and the Los Angeles Lakers welcomed back Bynum in a 116-102 win over the Denver Nuggets on Thursday night.
The win was the fifth straight for the Lakers (63-16) and tied them with the idle Cleveland Cavaliers (63-15) for the league lead.
Bynum, playing in his first game since tearing the medial collateral ligament in his right knee on Jan. 31, had 16 points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes.
Wearing a black brace on the knee, Bynum was greeted with cheers when his name was announced in the starting lineup. Another loud eruption came when the Lakers' announcer asked fans to welcome back the center.
"It was nice. It was almost like he never went out. It was a great performance for a comeback game after two months and something out. It just shows that he's been working hard," Gasol said.
And the perks for him?
"We have two 7-footers out there that can rebound. I was able to take advantage that he was a little off on his rhythm and I was able to go after the ball because he attracted two defenders. It was positive for me because it opened up my lane and allowed me to go after rebounds."
Gasol's 19 boards were nearly half of the Lakers' total (51).
And he did that with less minutes.
"It balances out Pau's minutes a lot, just even five minutes off his minute total is really important. That helps us a lot," Lakers' coach Phil Jackson said.
So how did Bynum feel?
He rated himself a B, B-plus and said it felt good to get a game under his belt.
"It feels great to be back and be playing man, seriously. My teammates have been waiting. They fed me the ball a little bit and got me really comfortable out there."
Carmelo Anthony had 23 points to lead the Nuggets, who lost for the first time in nine games and failed to secure the number two seed in the Western Conference. J.R. Smith had 19 points, while Chauncey Billups and Nene each added 17.
The Nuggets got within six with 8:12 remaining before Bryant turned it on. He scored six straight, including a bank shot from the left side of the key that didn't look like it had a chance, to give the Lakers a 107-93 lead.
"We hung in the game. I think they feel there was an energy to that team tonight that they haven't had in the last couple of weeks," Denver coach George Karl said.
"We probably didn't play well enough to win."
One of the story lines coming into the game focused on the Nuggets and their improved defense, but Los Angeles easily topped 100 points with three starters in double digits.
And the Lakers put additional pressure on the Nuggets' guards, causing fits for their rhythm on offense.
"They're a great defensive team and they got us frustrated a little bit. They just kept executing on offense like they always do," Smith said.
Bynum, who started in place of Lamar Odom, didn't shy away from contact and bumped up against Denver's big men throughout. It took him a while to get comfortable in his first start, though, and he was 0-for-2 in the first quarter and had two turnovers.
He scored nine points in the third quarter, showing flashes of his old self, and wound up 7-for-11 from the field.
It was Bryant and Gasol who put the Lakers ahead in the third, when the two launched Los Angeles on a 16-5 run with less than six minutes remaining in the quarter.
Shannon Brown hit a wide-open 3-pointer to start it and Gasol and Bryant combined to add 11 points in the spurt. Bryant's 3 with 1:39 remaining gave the Lakers a 13-point lead.
While most of the focus was on Bynum's return, it was Gasol who got the Lakers going. He was one rebound shy of a double-double by the end of the first quarter and had six points as part of an 8-0 run that gave Los Angeles a 32-21 lead.
Jackson turned the game over to his bench in the second quarter, but subbed his starters back in at the 5:50 mark in an attempt to slow the Nuggets.
They provided a spark for a few minutes before Denver went on a 12-4 run behind a pair of 3s from Smith, one a buzzer-beater that tied the game at 56 going into halftime.
Kenyon Martin missed his fourth consecutive game, but should return to the lineup on Monday when the Nuggets host Sacramento. ... Jackson wants to see how Bynum and Gasol work together before the playoffs. "They played really well together before. A big part is getting them both on the court together," Jackson said. ... The Lakers honored the memory of Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart and the two others who died in an early morning crash with a moment of silence before the game. ... Bryant (23,756) needs two points to pass Charles Barkley for 17th place on the NBA's career scoring list.