- Dave McMenamin, ESPN Staff Writer
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DALLAS -- After grabbing the rebound, absorbing the foul and making the two free throws with 11 seconds left to seal the Los Angeles Lakers' 96-91 win over the Dallas Mavericks on Saturday, Andrew Bynum ran over to the Lakers' bench with a carefree smile on his face.
It was a grin as big as his 7-foot frame as he chest-bumped his teammates and looked like a kid again.
Funny, it took a rapid maturation by Bynum since the All-Star break of accepting and embracing his role as the key cog of the Lakers' defense to make him feel the thrill of just how fun it is to be the 23-year-old starting center on the back-to-back world-champion Lakers.
"My confidence is really getting built up just because I can realize I can have that type of effect on a basketball game without touching the ball," Bynum said after finishing with a season-high 22 points and 15 rebounds, helping L.A. edge to within a half-game of the Mavericks for the No. 2 seeding in the Western Conference standings.
It was only the fifth time in his six-year career that he has topped the 20-point, 15-rebound plateau and the first since November 2009 -- a point when he had undergone only two of his three knee surgeries.
"It's almost like I've found kind of a role to play on this team," Bynum said.
After being mostly an afterthought in the Lakers' past two title runs as he averaged 6.3 points and 3.7 rebounds in the playoffs in 2009 and 8.6 and 6.9 in 2010, Bynum is now a featured piece in the Lake Show's attack.
"He's at full strength now," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "He's got the feel for it, and he knows what he's doing out there. Drew is just really coming into his own."
It's Bynum's will that is strong as steel, not his body. He still has to heavily ice his knees every day and is taking anti-inflammatory medicine. The 7-footer says he weighs about 290 pounds and wants to get down to 275 to take some pressure off his creaky joints.
In the Lakers' 9-1 run since the All-Star break, Bynum is averaging 12.1 points, 12.4 rebounds and 2.5 blocks. During the Lakers' four-game trip, he was even better, averaging 13.8 points, 15 rebounds and 1.8 blocks.
Bynum has a career average of 6.9 rebounds, but he is determined to change that. He had 12 rebounds against Miami, the lone loss on the trip, and he was disappointed in his effort.
"Rebounding-wise, for sure [I've raised the standard]," Bynum said. "That's one thing I've always kind of been knocked on for, not getting enough boards."
Even though he scored a season-high 22 points against Dallas, he was just as encouraged by his game against San Antonio to start the trip, when he scored only four points but controlled the game with 17 rebounds and three blocks.
"My focus isn't really offensively," Bynum said. "Right now I'm just kind of playing off my teammates. Defensively is where I'm just trying to alter shots and really rebound. It keeps you in the flow of the game when you just pursue the ball. It's a way to get more touches on the basketball without having to dominate the ball offensively."
When you play with the No. 6 scorer in NBA history in Kobe Bryant, looking to make an impact without demanding touches is probably a smart move.
A reporter even went so far as to ask Bynum whether he is the best player suiting up for the Lakers these days.
"Are you kidding me?" Bynum asked. "We have Kobe Bryant, and we have Pau Gasol. Are you serious? That's kind of silly."
Meaning even with his success, Bynum has remained humble.
Bryant also wasn't quite ready to bestow the high honor on Bynum, but he did heap a fair amount of praise on the young center.
"He was sensational," Bryant said. "He looks like he's kind of figuring things out. I don't know if he's putting something in his cereal in the morning or what, but something is clicking in for him in terms of exactly what we need from him and how to play big down in the post."
As Bynum is clicking, the Lakers are similarly finding their stride. They're building momentum at the right time, making an upward march to align their zenith with June and secure a proper send-off for their Zen Master.
Having Bynum in there healthy to turn the page on the regular season and open the book on the playoffs isn't something they've enjoyed the past couple of years, as their big guy struggled with a strained Achilles tendon last year and a slow-to-recover knee injury the season before that.
"He's developed into a great center," Gasol said. "I'm proud of him."
Bynum's easy smile as he was surrounded by his teammates after the big win said that for the first time in a while, he was proud of himself, too.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter. John Fisher of ESPN Stats & Information contributed to this report.
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