- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- With the curtain set to go up on the Los Angeles Lakers' season on Tuesday, the team was assured Sunday that it won't have an understudy manning the sidelines.
Lakers head coach Phil Jackson returned to practice after missing the team's final two preseason games Thursday and Friday with flu-like symptoms. Assistant coach Brian Shaw filled in during his absence, guiding the Lakers to two wins against the Golden State Warriors.
The rest of the team seems to be following its coach's example when it comes to speedy recoveries.
Lakers center Andrew Bynum is progressing quicker than expected as he rehabilitates his right knee, which was operated on in late July. Bynum ran on the treadmill Sunday with his full body weight on the knee, graduating from an altered gravity machine that he had been using to ease himself back into playing condition.
"He went through some activity that was accelerated," Jackson said. "I think he wants to ramp it up a little bit faster than we want him to. We want him to be able to go in and sustain that effort when he does get back, so he needs to have a real base. He needs a foundation to come back and play with. ... We want him back tomorrow, but if he's back in two, three, four weeks, we understand what it's going to take."
Jackson said he is eyeing a comeback for Bynum around Thanksgiving. The Lakers play in Salt Lake City against the Utah Jazz on "Black Friday," Nov. 26.
Kobe Bryant, who Jackson recently said would not play "heavy minutes" to begin the season, appears ready to play without any set limitations. Bryant played 34 minutes in the preseason finale Friday.
"I anticipate the way he's playing, [Shane] Battier chasing him, he'll be in the 30s but I don't think any more than that," Jackson said.
When asked if he could play 40 minutes against Houston if need be, Bryant replied, "Sure."
According to Bryant, the team is healthier to start the season than it was last year. But not every player is beginning the season without an injury -- Luke Walton aggravated his strained right hamstring Friday and is doubtful for the game against Houston.
Walton's absence could mean more time for second-round draft pick Devin Ebanks.
"I think we're going to have to [play Ebanks]," Jackson said about the 6-foot-9 small forward, who averaged 6.6 points and 2.8 rebounds in the preseason. "It's going to be a situation where he's going to have to play power forward at times and guard at times. ... It's more just covering our bases because he's playing well enough to see some minutes."
Tuesday's game brings the challenge of a team that pushed the Lakers to a Game 7 in the conference semifinals two seasons ago (back when Ron Artest was an enemy rather than an ally) and is welcoming a healthy Yao Ming back into the fold.
"They're a pretty good team [to be classified as a] non-playoff team," Jackson said about the Rockets, who missed the postseason but still managed to win 42 games a year ago with Yao out of the lineup all season with a broken left foot.
Artest, a big boxing fan, said the team has to take the same game-by-game, quarter-by-quarter, possession-by-possession approach that a boxer brings to every punch in the ring.
"You have to cover up, play defense and jab when you're supposed to," Artest said. "You can't make a mistake or you get knocked out, so each quarter is like a jab -- same thing."
Tuesday is also ring night for the back-to-back champs, and Artest is maintaining his plan to raffle his ring off for charity, hoping to raise money to benefit mental health awareness.
"If it's a motivation for him, it's great," Jackson said of Artest's plan to relinquish his ring. "Use whatever he can use to motivate himself. He doesn't need a whole lot."
Said Artest: "I was only disappointed because I heard the rings are going to be really big this year. I heard it's going to be outstanding. I heard they're going to be some of the best rings [the Lakers] have ever gotten. ... I'm going to get a duplicate for my wife, but the first one we get as a team, that one's going away."
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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