LOS ANGELES – The final piece of what the Los Angeles Lakers hope will be a championship puzzle was put back into place Thursday night as Andrew Bynum returned to the team's starting lineup against the Denver Nuggets during a 116-102 win. Bynum, who has missed 100 total games over the past two seasons, hadn't played a game since he tore the medial collateral ligament in his right knee Jan. 31.
It was a sight that even the most optimistic Lakers fan had to wonder if they would see again this season. Last season, Bynum was expected to return before the season after he had partially dislocated his left kneecap but wouldn't play again until this pre-season. As early as two weeks ago, Lakers coach Phil Jackson said Bynum wasn't close to returning. That was, of course, before Bynum was photographed with a Playmate on his shoulders at the Playboy Mansion while the Lakers were wrapping up a seven-game road trip.
You know the old saying, there’s nothing like a night at the Playboy Mansion to get you back in game shape.
As soon as the Lakers returned from their road trip, Bynum pleaded with Jackson to activate him and proved that he was ready to return after dominating in five-on-five drills with the team this week.
"He wanted to come back last week," said Jackson. "He felt comfortable and wanted to be back on the roster last Friday so there was about a week delay between how we felt and how comfortable he was. I still wanted to see him play in some five-on-five games but playing in front of a crowd is always different."
While the Lakers were vying for the best record in the league without Bynum (they defeated both the Celtics and Cavaliers on the road without him) and reached the NBA Finals last season while he was out, most of the team still sees Bynum as the final piece of their puzzle. He is the difference between the Lakers being one of the best teams to being a championship team. He takes them from being a good defensive team with a deep bench to a scary defensive team with the deepest bench and the best sixth man – Lamar Odom – in the league.
"When Bynum and Gasol play together their power and prevalence around the basket is very difficult to take out of the game," said Nuggets coach George Karl. "Kobe [Bryant], [Pau] Gasol, Bynum and Odom throw over top of the defense so well. It's hard to keep them away from the rim. They're a top 2-3 team without [Bynum] and they could get to the top of the mountain with him. You have to remember there hasn't been a lot of teams in the past ten years that have played two seven footers but both Gasol and Bynum are playmakers."
Wearing a yellow and black protective knee brace on his right knee, Bynum was on the court practicing two hours before the game and couldn't stop moving around the locker room prior to the opening introductions. After he was announced in the starting lineup, he got a standing ovation from the crowd as public address announcer Lawrence Tanter said, "Welcome back Andrew Bynum," as the theme from "Welcome Back, Kotter" played.
Up until the opening tip of the game, Jackson was reluctant to reveal how he would use Bynum, refusing to announce that he would do anything other than activate him for the game.
"You'll have to wait and see about that part," said Jackson with a smile when asked if Bynum would start. "I'll talk to him before he goes out there."
Even Karl, leaning against the visiting locker room door was curious, asking reporters if they knew if Bynum would start. "I heard he wasn't starting," said Karl. "What have you heard? Is he starting?"
While Bynum's presence elicited cheers every time he touched the ball in the first half, it wasn't until the second half that everyone began to see the player who was averaging 14 points and 8.2 rebounds before getting injured.
"The start of the first half was rust, nervousness, butterflies, but I settled down in the second half," said Bynum. "Mostly I listened to the advice my teammate, Josh Powell, gave me. He told me to post up deep, get deep position and it will be easier to jump start you and that's what I started doing and it worked out for me."
After looking timid around the basket in scoring three points in the first two quarters, Bynum began becoming more physical in the second half. He scored the first basket of the third quarter on a hook over Nene, beat three defenders in scoring another basket and slam dunked a put-back after a Gasol miss. Bynum would finish the game scoring 16 points, nine in the third quarter, and grabbing 7 rebounds in 21 minutes.
Bynum’s comfort level on the court increased to the point where he even hit an open shot from near the top of the key, a shot Karl had jokingly hoped Bynum had developed while he was gone so he wouldn't dominate the paint. Well, on Thursday, he showed he could do both.
As pleasant a sight as it had to be for the Jackson, who was hoping to ease Bynum back into the lineup, it had to be equally alarming for whatever team that has to face the Lakers with Bynum in the lineup. Bynum didn't just ease into the lineup, he exceeded his season scoring average against the second best team in the West after being out for over two months.
"Without Andrew we were able to go the Finals and lose and of course we want to go back and win," said Odom. "But our goal isn't to be better than one team, it's to be better than 29 other teams."