Bynum comes up big in return

LOS ANGELES -- He didn't mention his points, although the 29 he scored were a game high and the second-highest amount he's put up in the 333 games played in his career.

He didn't mention his rebounds, although the 13 he pulled down were also a game high and led to the Los Angeles Lakers' 50-36 advantage on the glass over the Denver Nuggets.

No, after playing in his first real NBA game in seven and a half months and breaking out with one of the best performances of his career, Andrew Bynum cited only one statistic of his after the game.

His fouls.

"I only had two fouls," Bynum said. "So, I think the more aggressive you are on defense, you can end the game with at least four fouls as a big trying to control the lane."

Seems like the Lakers' big man is expecting bigger things of himself this season.

Pau Gasol described Bynum's debut after serving a four-game suspension to start the season as "spectacular" and "outstanding."

New coach Mike Brown said that the "Big Fella" was "a load to deal with."

Kobe Bryant called Bynum "ready" and "very well prepared."

And what did Bynum think of himself?

"I really didn't think I did that great," Bynum said. "They got a couple offensive rebounds late. I can block more shots, I can be there earlier [on defense]."

After being called everything from aloof to injury prone to entitled in his first six seasons with the Lakers, Bynum was his own worst critic after what was supposed to be his big breakout moment.

Since the first games of Bynum's rookie season, Lakers fans have been waiting for him to step up as the franchise centerpiece and fill Shaquille O'Neal's shoes as a dominant force in the middle.

As Bryant said, it might finally be time. He might finally be ready.

For everything that Bynum thinks he could have done better down the stretch, he had a successful play in the game's final minutes to show that he was doing his job just fine.

He checked back in the fourth quarter with 6:04 remaining in the fourth quarter and the Lakers down by five. Seven points, a block and a rebound later, and the Lakers had a three-point win.

The signature scoring play from the Lakers' late run came with 3:23 remaining and the Lakers down by five. Bryant drove toward the lane and stopped short of the hoop, lofting an alley-oop ball for Bynum. Bynum used every bit of his 7-foot, 285-pound body to go over Denver's 6-11, 250-pound Nene to receive the pass and stuff home the shot while absorbing the contact from a foul and then sticking the free throw.

It wasn't quite Kobe to Shaq in the fourth quarter of Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference finals -- Bryant was coming from the right side of the lane instead of the left side; Bryant was the old person in the duo instead of the young one; Bynum was fouled and actually made the free throw whereas it would have been a gamble with O'Neal on the line had he picked up a whistle on his dunk -- but it was a symbol of what this team needs to look like if it is going to be championship caliber.

Bryant the wily veteran, willing to make the right play while still holding the game's ultimate closer status in his back pocket. Bynum the budding star, able to shoulder the load on both ends with a healthy 24-year-old body. Gasol, the steady contributor completing the trio.

"Now Pau's not down low, but he's the popper," said Bryant, explaining how the Lakers become so hard to guard in screen-roll situations with Bynum involved. "Now you got Andrew camped out down low and you got me coming down the middle."

It would be premature to get too excited by Bynum's 29 points on 13-for-18 shooting, 13 rebounds and two blocks and expect it game to game, but it would also be folly to believe that Saturday was Bynum's best.

Bynum's mind wasn't fully in it. Brown said, "He's a little behind in terms of the plays." His body wasn't fully in it, either. Bynum said, "I was winded like crazy . . . I couldn't breathe. I really couldn't."

The Lakers' 0-2 start was disappointing, but it was also misleading. Bynum, the player Brown designed the offense around when he pitched how he was going to run the team in his interview with Lakers' brass in May, was on the sidelines. The Lakers' two-game winning streak that followed, sparked by their defense, was encouraging, but also misleading. Bynum's ability to contribute on defense by getting his big body to show on the perimeter on pick-and-rolls and still recover to the lane in time to protect the rim on any given defensive possession will be paramount to how the team ultimately jells.

For one day, at least, Shaq seemed like a distant memory and Dwight Howard wasn't a thought on anyone's mind.

Forget Superman, maybe Bynum will be all it takes to rescue the Lakers' championship chances.

Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.