Andrew Bynum gives Lakers big lift
His numbers weren't dazzling, but the Lakers were better with Bynum in the lineup
WASHINGTON -- It was almost six months to the day since Andrew Bynum dragged his right leg up and down the court in Game 7 of the NBA Finals in June.
That day, pushing his steadily declining knee for a month after injuring it in the first round of the playoff, Bynum played 19 minutes and went 1-of-5 from the field to finish with two points, six rebounds and his second championship ring.
In Tuesday's 103-89 win over the Washington Wizards, Bynum had an eerily similar line -- 17 minutes, 1-of-5 from the field, seven points, four rebounds and two blocks.
He didn't finish with a ring, of course. The only thing the Los Angeles Lakers earned on a freezing December night in the nation's capital was the momentum of a two-game win streak that they'll take into Indiana on Wednesday.
But Bynum finished with some promise that he can be a contributor as the Lakers go for a third consecutive title.
"I feel light-years better than back then," he said.
Bynum came off the bench and entered the game midway through the second quarter, sitting on the scorer's table at center court until he pointed to Pau Gasol to tell him he was coming in for him.
Bynum walked to the key to take his spot between Washington's Hilton Armstrong and Al Thornton on the rebounding hash as Kobe Bryant was shooting a free throw and began alternating between furiously rubbing his hands together and blowing on them.
This wasn't a sign of fear or having cold feet about finally committing to his return after delaying it the first 24 games of the season. This was just being cold. Period.
"It's new," Bynum said with a smile about coming in without having a good lather remaining from warm-ups after starting the previous 115 regular-season games he played for L.A. "But at the end of the day, it's something that I have to do to get back and I'm willing to do it."
The 7-foot, 285-pound big man said he's still about a month away from being where he wants to be and sees no reason he should start until he's had that time to develop.
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"It should be like this for quite a while," Bynum said. "I'm really just trying to get back into the swing of things and have a couple more practices."
Bynum's minutes meant less playing time and more potency from Pau Gasol, who finished with 16 points, nine rebounds and seven assists in a lighter workload of 31 minutes.
Lakers head coach Phil Jackson dismissed Gasol's effective play with Bynum back as merely a "coinkydink," but if you read the Spaniard's body language, you could tell he was satisfied with being able to play all-out early without having to worry about storing up energy for the stretch run.
Jackson conceded that Bynum "gave us something we needed," pointing to the X's and O's advantage of having a third big man with six fouls to give coming in when Gasol and Lamar Odom were saddled with two apiece early.
But Bynum gave them more than that.
He gave the Lakers' frontcourt that "dynamic kind of feel," as Jackson describes the twin-tower duo he brings when he pairs with Gasol.
He gave the Lakers the extra length and space-eating size to allow them to win the points-in-the-paint battle 36-34 after being outscored 58-32 there a game ago in New Jersey.
He gave Steve Blake and Derek Fisher an extra target down low to dump off to after they create penetration so they don't have to try to finish among the trees themselves. Bynum didn't always finish Tuesday, but he did get eight free throws out of his looks down low, making five.
He gave the Lakers a scare, too, when he landed awkwardly after a late alley-oop attempt off a Luke Walton pass.
"I have to fault the passer on that one," Jackson said. "That was not smart. It's just not time to do that yet. He's got to get in basketball game shape first."
Said Bynum: "I didn't even know it was that crazy. Theo [Ratliff] could see it and told me it looked real funny."
OK, so no alley-oop attempts yet, got it? They'll come gradually over the next four weeks as Bynum works himself back into gear and gets his spring back so it doesn't look like he'd have difficulty clearing a phone book when he goes airborne.
But he's already cleared a major hurdle in his head.
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"It's not really in the back of my mind," Bynum said. "I feel it. Like on that [missed] dunk. When I came down, I felt it in a couple of little places, but there's no swelling so it's probably something that I'm going to have to deal with. I don't think about it unless I feel it."
He felt it, too, back in the Finals, when the pain was so great that he opted out of taking the tipoff just so he could save his knee one jarring impact per game. But he soldiered through it when he felt it, just like he'll plan to do again.
Bynum finished his postgame remarks and got up from his seat by his locker, spreading a sea of reporters.
One writer came to the pack a little later than the others and asked Bynum one more time how his knee was doing.
"All's well," Bynum said.
For a Lakers team that has won five of its past six games and has its championship roster back intact, it's actually beginning to feel that way again.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.