- Dave McMenamin, ESPN Staff Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- If Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol hugged like they did Sunday at any point in the last month, Bynum would have a pile of ruined dress shirts lying on the floor at the back of his closet, as his strained left Achilles tendon kept him out of uniform and in street clothes since March 19.
The two 7-footers, who play so much bigger than their combined 14 feet when they're on the court together, held their sweaty embrace, celebrating the Lakers' 87-79 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder that served as a welcome-back party for Bynum. It just so happens that the team's oft-missing championship swagger decided to crash the party as well.
Bynum returned from his 13-game absence to score 13 points on 6-for-10 shooting, while tying his playoff-career highs in rebounds (12) and blocks (four) and playing 31 minutes when Lakers coach Phil Jackson said he only planned to play him for 24. His presence helped Gasol gather 19 points, 13 rebounds and three blocks of his own.
And with the Lakers center came the centered focus of a team that looks ready to turn this April into the start of a championship march.
"The more I keep playing with this aggressive nature, I think I'm going to get better at it and I think my teammates will trust me even more with the basketball and we'll just keep building," Bynum said.
The aggressive nature led to great plays like the Thabo Sefolosha first-quarter shot attempt that Bynum's arms swallowed whole, not giving the ball even a glimmer of a chance of going in. It led to the Thunder's settling for jump shots when Bynum was roaming the lane and ending up just 2-for-16 from 3-point range. But it also led to a shoulder shove to Jeff Green after Bynum thought he got pushed to the floor by him. Jackson might not have a problem with it, ("He wanted to make an issue out of it, that's alright, he's saying, 'I'm not going to stand around and get picked on,'" said Jackson) but the NBA league office might after hearing Bynum's quotes about the incident.
"That was a response because I kind of got taken out on that same play," Bynum said. "I didn't know if [Green] fell into me or he pushed me or what, but I wasn't going to let that happen without retaliating. That's just part of being aggressive, part of letting people know, part of having a presence out there."
A suspension like the one handed down to Boston's Kevin Garnett would surely be too harsh a penalty, but the league could go after Bynum's wallet for boasting about the dirty play, the way they've been fining his coach recently.
Neither Bynum nor the Lakers were perfect. The 22-year-old said he felt winded in the first quarter and missed two out of the three free throws he attempted, and the team searching for its 16th championship only "eked" out the win according to Jackson and "squeaked" out the win according to Bryant. But they both showed enough flashes of brilliance to suggest that Game 2 is going to look better than Game 1, and Game 3 better than Game 2, and so on.
The Lakers actually looked like the world champions again, leading by as many as 17 in the first half following a Bynum hammer dunk on Nenad Krstic (more on that later), never trailing in the game and displaying an overall quality on the court. You would have to think hard to remember the last time they showed it after they ended the season with seven losses in their last 11 games.
When Bryant banked in a difficult fallaway jumper late in the fourth quarter to keep the Thunder from ever making it closer than a two-possession game, you remembered why this team is so tough to beat in a seven-game series.
"Right when we were on our way back, they made big plays," Kevin Durant said. "That's what great teams do."
And when Bynum caught a pass in the post, swiveled on his pivot foot and banged one on Krstic's head for one of his three momentum-changing dunks on the day, you remembered why certain members of the Lakers ownership consider him to be the franchise's future.
"It kind of got me going a little bit, that play, just because I was able to get the dunk in that fashion and hype the team up," Bynum said. "Everybody was jumping up and down on the bench. That's the type of player I think I can be, exciting, create a lot of energy for our team, whether it's coming over and blocking shots or getting easy dunks."
Bynum said he felt a "couple little twinges, but nothing too serious" in the Achilles, but you wouldn't know it from his teammates. Gasol said Bynum looked "fresh" and "ready to roll." Bryant added, "I think the injury actually did some good for him. He was able to rest and recuperate and now he looks 100 percent healthy."
He's not 100 percent, of course. When Bynum's shorts got bunched up during a jump ball in the fourth quarter, you could see that he isn't just wearing a right knee brace. He's wearing a mummy-like wrap that rides all the way up his thigh, but the way he played made you believe that he was close enough to 100 percent to get the job done.
Kind of like his team. The Lakers might not ever reach juggernaut status this postseason, but they might just be good enough.
At the beginning of the day, wearing their Sunday whites, the Lakers looked as fresh as an overnight snowfall. At the end of the day, when Durant left his news conference wearing all black and muted grays, he looked like he was mourning the death of the notion that he'd be playing against the same shaky Lakers squad that went 6-7 in Bynum's absence.
Bynum's back, just like Jackson's postseason countdown on the white board in the locker room that now says "15 to go." Both have a ways to go before they reach where they want to be -- Bynum conditioned enough to play 40 minutes if need be and Jackson's number at zero -- but the way things went on Sunday makes you think they both have a chance to get there.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.
4hSteve Ilardi and Jeremias Engelmann