Bryant hadn't played since Jan. 13

CLEVELAND -- Lakers star Kobe Bryant started Sunday's game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, returning to Los Angeles' lineup after missing 14 games with a severely sprained right ankle.

Bryant hadn't played since Jan. 13, when he rolled his ankle after stepping on the foot of Cavaliers forward Ira Newble. On
Saturday, Bryant practiced at full speed and felt good enough to
test his ankle.

After warming up -- he didn't attempt any drives -- for about 20 minutes Sunday, Bryant said he was going to play.

"Being away for a while gives you more love for the game," he said. "It feels great to be back."

Bryant was booed by the Gund Arena crowd the moment he touched the ball and missed his first shot, a 15-foot bank from the left side.

Bryant's unexpected return for the finale of a five-game road trip jazzes up a nationally televised matchup with Cavs' All-Star LeBron James, but more importantly it will help the Lakers, who have struggled without their leader.

Los Angeles went 6-8 without Bryant, who is averaging 27.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 6.6 assists a game. The Lakers were 0-4 against teams with winning records.

Even if Bryant isn't 100 percent and plays limited minutes in the next few games, the Lakers will take whatever he can give them.

"He's a great player," interim coach Frank Hamblen said. "Any percentage you can get on the floor improves his teammates."

Bryant wasn't expected to be back until after the All-Star break. Now that he is, and as long as he doesn't have any setbacks, Bryant could play in next weekend's All-Star Game in Denver.

The Lakers are instantly better with Bryant back, but Hamblen hopes his team learned something while he was away.

"Hopefully, they gained a lot of confidence while he was gone," Hamblen said. "Some guys emerged and stepped up and we hope they'll stay at that level."

With Bryant back in the lineup, the roles for forward Lamar Odom and guard Chucky Atkins could change. Both have been asked to score more in Bryant's absence and averaged 18.6 and 18.2 points, respectively, in the last 14 games.

To make room for Bryant, the Lakers placed rookie guard Tony Bobbitt on the injured list.