EL SEGUNDO, Calif. -- While the Los Angeles Lakers were pleased to finish their recent road trip with six wins in seven games, the biggest victory of the trip was likely the successful return of center Andrew Bynum to the lineup.
After missing the season's first 24 games recovering from offseason surgery to repair a torn meniscus in his right knee, Bynum made his season debut December 14th in Washington and has averaged 7.3 points and five rebounds over 16.5 minutes in four games.
Bynum admitted Monday that he still feels pain in the knee.
"A sharp pain on certain moves. That's it," he said. "It's just something that I have to deal with. As long as the swelling stays down, stays minimal, it's going to be OK."
The more important thing, he says, is swelling, not pain, and he reported no complications on that end.
While the Lakers will keep a close eye on his health, both Bynum and coach Phil Jackson agree conditioning and timing are currently larger obstacles for the sixth year center than structural questions about his knee.
"He came out and practiced today," Jackson said of Monday's workout. "He got a little stiff during practice and we took him out for a second to kind of get himself together again. He's still tiring, and that'll happen as he gets into game condition."
Jackson has said he'll insert Bynum back into the starting lineup, sending Lamar Odom to the bench, as soon as Bynum is capable of handling the greater burden. When that will happen remains an open question.
"I just can't tell you until he's got that kind of bounce in his step that says he can now play 30, 35 minutes. Then he can go out, play eight minutes and get into [the] four rotations that you want from a starter," Jackson said. "A couple rotations each half, so that he can have the influence on a game. Right now, we're content with how we're doing it."
Despite posting his best statistical effort Sunday afternoon in Toronto, with 16 points and seven rebounds in 17:39 of playing time, Bynum acknowledged starting is not yet in the cards.
"I think I'm a ways away from being able to play at the level I was at before," Bynum said. "I'm just going to keep practicing and keep playing, and hopefully I'll be able to play myself into that role."
The Lakers hope he can do it fairly quickly, because beginning with Saturday's game against the Miami Heat at Staples Center, the team's schedule -- at this point the easiest in the NBA -- grows very difficult very quickly. Following Saturday's game, the Lakers hit the road for back-to-back games against Western Conference leading San Antonio Spurs and a revitalized New Orleans Hornets squad.
For Jackson, it's those games -- not the one against Miami -- looming largest.
"The real interesting matchup for us comes when we play San Antonio and New Orleans in the back-to-back trip after Christmas," he said. "It's competition that's in our conference, and we have to be ready to play them, and put a notch in our belt against them."
In each of their recent title runs, the Lakers raced to an early lead in the Western Conference, holding the top spot when Christmas came around. This year, they find themselves chasing not only the red hot Spurs, but Dallas as well. Jackson knows they have less wiggle room because of it if they want to finish the season as the conference's top seed heading into the playoffs.
"That four game [losing streak] that we had really makes a difference in standings, so we can't have anything happen like that again during the course of the season because San Antonio has sent a message and Dallas, too," he said. "They're going to be consistent, and they're playing strong and have deep benches, and are going to stay up there in the wins column.
"We have to be prepared to match that."
For Bynum, he's just looking at getting back on his home floor Tuesday against Milwaukee.
"I'm going to be more hyped up," he said. "It's going to be a lot more fans cheering my name and stuff like that. It's going to be more energy, and I'm excited. I want to go out there."
Asked if, as a well-documented car enthusiast, he had a particular vehicle in mind for the trip to Staples Center, Bynum smiled and noted the heavy rainfall expected to stick with Los Angeles for the next few days and the precarious driving conditions they've caused.
"Just a safe one," he said.
Brian Kamenetzky is a regular contributor to ESPNLosAngeles.com.