Andrew Bynum returns from suspension to power Lakers by Nuggets

LOS ANGELES -- Andrew Bynum provided the Los Angeles Lakers with a powerful performance in his season debut, following a four-game suspension that carried over from the playoffs.

It all would have been for naught, however, had it not been for some clutch shooting in the fourth quarter by Kobe Bryant and a couple of equally critical hustle plays by Derek Fisher and Pau Gasol in the final minutes.

Bynum scored 29 points on 13 for 18 shooting and grabbed 13 rebounds, leading the Lakers to a 92-89 victory over the Denver Nuggets on Saturday. The 7-foot center played 31½ grueling minutes, helping the Lakers win their third straight following their first 0-2 start since 2002-03.

"They were looking for me a lot. I was a focal point early in the offense, so I knew the quicker I got down the court, the better it was," said Bynum, who made four of his first five shots and finished the first quarter with 10 points. "I was winded like crazy. I couldn't breathe in the first six minutes. Defensively, getting back and all those things require me to be in better condition. So it's going to take a little while."

Bynum was suspended without pay for the first four games because of a flagrant foul against Dallas' J.J. Barea in Game 4 of the Western Conference semifinals. The original ban was five games, but was reduced on Dec. 23 as a result of a shortened schedule caused by the lockout.

"I really didn't have the highest expectations," said the seven-year veteran, who totaled 41 points and 23 rebounds in two preseason games against the Clippers. "I just wanted to come out and be aggressive. I wanted to get it down low, and when I got it, I made shots."

Bryant, bogged down by foul trouble, had 17 points along with nine assists and 10 rebounds. The Lakers overcame 2-for-24 shooting from 3-point range.

Reserve forward Al Harrington had 21 points for the Nuggets, who have lost 25 of their last 29 road games against the Lakers.

"The game of basketball treats you badly sometimes," Denver coach George Karl said. "No one feels very good right now. They hurt us rebounding the ball and they hurt us with Bynum's power underneath the basket. They've very good at playing an aggressive style of disrupting you, with guys coming at you on pick-and-rolls."

The Lakers missed their first 12 shots from 3-point range -- all in the first half -- before Matt Barnes connected with 11:11 left in the third to put Los Angeles ahead 49-47. The Nuggets weren't much better from behind the arc, missing nine of their first 10 before finishing up 7 for 26.

Trailing 71-69 after three quarters, the Lakers tied it four times before Harrington's 3-pointer gave Denver an 85-80 lead with 5:29 to play. Bynum guided in a pass above the rim from Bryant and converted the ensuing free throw to narrow the gap to 89-87 with 3:23 left.

Fisher, who fouled out with six points in his 500th consecutive game, missed a 3-point shot trying to beat the 24-second clock -- but hustled all the way to the other side of the court to fall on the loose ball and managed to get a timeout with 2:29 remaining and the Lakers still down by two.

"I haven't seen it on tape yet, and I'm sure it doesn't look very graceful. But I'm glad it helped us get a win," the 37-year-old Fisher said with a chuckle. "You see a ball free and you go for it, especially at that time of the game. To make hustle plays and do the little things, that's the team that we're becoming -- a team that can figure out a way to grind out wins.

"Once I saw the ball bounce long (Ty) Lawson and I were kind of bumping into each other shoulder-to-shoulder and I started to lose my balance," Fisher explained. "So it was somewhat surprising that I was still able to figure out a way to find the basketball as I was stumbling and regain control before going out of bounds."

Bryant tied it 89-all with a pair of free throws, and Bynum blocked a layup by Nene with 2 minutes left before converting a layup at the other end for a 91-89 lead with 1:50 to go.

The Nuggets had a few opportunities to pull it out. But Gasol blocked a layup by Lawson, who missed two free throws the next time the Nuggets had possession. Danilo Gallinari had a chance to tie it, but blew an easy fast-break layup with Steve Blake on his heels after Bryant missed a jumper at the other end.

"We get three layups and a couple of free throws in the last three minutes, and we miss all of them," Karl lamented. "Our offensive confidence is a little short right now."

Fisher's consecutive-game streak is the longest among active NBA players. Former Lakers forward A.C. Green, a teammate of Fisher's during the 1999-00 season, holds the league record with 1,192 in a row.

"That's what's so amazing about what he was able to accomplish -- especially as a big guy out there banging with the best of them," Fisher said. "For him to be able to have done what it took mentally, emotionally, spiritually and physically to be prepared to go to work every single day for all those seasons was a big-time example for me.

"It's not like I'm chasing any type of number, but I just try to bring the same mentality to work, whether it's 500 or 1,000. I'm nowhere close to his streak, but I still take great pride in coming to work every day. Those experiences with him were great. We talked a lot and I learned a lot from him."

Bryant, who averaged 27.8 points through the first four games despite playing with a torn ligament in his right wrist, missed his first three shots and played more than 14 scoreless minutes before ending the drought on a floater that put the Lakers ahead 38-36 with 3:40 left in the second quarter.

Game notes
The Lakers have played six times on New Year's Eve since coming to Los Angeles -- all at home (5-1). Their rematch with the Nuggets on Sunday night will mark the first time the Lakers have played on New Year's Eve and New Year's Day in the same season since 1959-60, when the franchise was based in Minneapolis. ... Bryant needs four points to become the sixth player in history to reach 28,000.