There won't be T-shirts or commemorative bobbleheads to mark the occasion, but the long-awaited return of Andrew Bynum could happen tonight against the Denver Nuggets.
It became a distinct possibility after Wednesday's practice, when Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said the 21-year-old center had pretty much done all he could do in practice scenarios.
Bynum, out since Jan. 31 because of a torn medial collateral ligament in his right knee, has gradually ratcheted up his rehabilitation to the point that the next sensible step would come tonight.
"I don't know how much more he can get out of just the activity level that he's doing right now," Jackson said. "He's got to get playing here pretty soon."
Said Bynum: "I think [tonight's] possible. I feel like I'm ready. I want to go out there and get as much game experience as I can."
Bynum has been going through full-court scrimmages for almost a week with varying degrees of success. On some days, reserve center DJ Mbenga has even gotten the best of him.
But Jackson liked what he saw of Bynum's reflexes and reactions during the scrimmages. Bynum's body is balanced after he shoots, and his mechanics look natural when he rebounds and blocks shots, Jackson said.
"Those are the things you look for physically," Jackson said.
Bynum is averaging 14 points and 8.2 rebounds this season. He has missed 32 games since Kobe Bryant crashed into his knee after an off-balance drive to the basket against Memphis.
Bynum said he would go into a meeting with Jackson this morning and try to convince his coach that he should be in the lineup tonight.
"I'm pretty brief in all facets of life, so I'll probably walk in there and just say . . . I'm ready to play," Bynum said.
Of course, Bynum is not expected to perform immediately at a high level when he returns . . . or is he?
"We expect a little bit of a hitch in our game, but it may not be that at all," Jackson said. "He may just fit right back in again. We'll see how it goes."
Jackson wasn't sure whether Bynum would start or come off the bench when he returns. If Bynum starts, Lamar Odom would probably return to reserve status.
The Lakers could be going up against future playoff opponents tonight against Denver and Friday at Portland.
In fact, Jackson reminded the team before Wednesday's practice that the Nuggets and Trail Blazers were part of the playoff-bound logjam below the Lakers in the Western Conference standings.
"They're big teams that want to play physical and we have to be prepared for them," Jackson said. "It's a good test if we're going to strive for that best record in the league."
The Lakers (62-16) are a game behind Cleveland (63-15) for home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. Each team has four games left.
The Nuggets (53-26), surprisingly, are the second-seeded team in the West, having won 13 of their last 14 games.
They also stuck it to the Lakers in a 90-79 victory in Denver almost six weeks ago. The Lakers shot a miserable 29.8%, causing Jackson to smile thinly when asked afterward what had happened.
"I'm supposed to tell you what happened and you watched that garbage for 48 minutes?" he said at the time. "That was a garbage game, no doubt about it. I wish we could repay the fans some money for that game."
Trevor Ariza missed Wednesday's practice because of personal reasons, a team spokesman said. He is expected to play tonight. . . . Fans are encouraged to donate used sneakers and cellphones at tonight's game as part of the NBA's "Green Week."
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With four games left, the Lakers are 62-16. Here are the 10 other seasons they have won 60 or more games and how those seasons finished:
*--* SEASON W-L RESULT 1971-72 69-13 NBA title 1999-00 67-15 NBA title 1986-87 65-17 NBA title 1989-90 63-19 L, 2nd round 1984-85 62-20 NBA title 1985-86 62-20 L, West finals 1987-88 62-20 NBA title 1997-98 61-21 L, West finals 1972-73 60-22 L, NBA Finals 1979-80 60-22 NBA title *--*