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Lakers will get a couple of early tests in Phoenix and Denver

The defending champions will get Andrew Bynum back from an elbow injury, but Pau Gasol remains sidelined because of a strained hamstring. Suns and Nuggets are among top teams in the West.

November 12, 2009|Mike Bresnahan

With so many games left until June, and so many twists and turns inevitably awaiting the Lakers, it's too early to call the next two days a test.

More like a pop quiz.

The Lakers play host to the rejuvenated Phoenix Suns tonight before playing at Denver on Friday, a back-to-back that will definitely challenge their 6-1 record.

"If we get these games, then we'll be at the top of the West for sure," center Andrew Bynum said. "That's a great early-season test."

Test or otherwise, Bynum will be back tonight after missing two games because of a strained right elbow and sore right triceps. His frontcourt mate, Pau Gasol, will miss both games because of a strained right hamstring that won't seem to go away.

Wednesday marked another day in which Gasol's workout was bouncing up and down on an elliptical machine. Gasol told reporters he hoped to start running on a treadmill today and Friday before returning to the court for shooting drills, perhaps Saturday.

A target date for his return is still elusive, seeing how he has tried to practice two different times only to be set back by pain the next day.

When will he practice again?

"We're starting to look toward Christmas," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said facetiously.

Next week is more likely, though the Lakers are trying to be patient. "Most hamstrings, you actually see bleeding or bruises or holes in the hamstring. His has just been one of those things that weren't a big concern to us but have turned into a month-long injury," Jackson said.

Gasol missed the Lakers' last six exhibitions and will have missed nine regular-season games by the time the Lakers are done in Denver.

On one hand, they're missing a versatile All-Star who averaged 18.9 points and 9.6 rebounds last season. On the other hand, they're doing fine without him.

"The more people that I talk to about it, the more they tell me that hamstrings are really dangerous and you've got to be extra cautious," Gasol said. "I don't think there's a risk that you can actually tear it up, but you can re-injure it and then it can become an issue for the whole year and you're playing at a lower percentage of your performance."

If that's the case, he wouldn't want to come back tonight. That's for sure.

The Lakers face a Suns team that has returned to a push-the-pace offense that's averaging a league-best 112.3 points. Steve Nash looks 25, not 35, and Amare Stoudemire has bounced back from retina surgery.

The Suns were pretty much left for dead after Stoudemire went down, finishing 46-36 and failing to make the playoffs last season. Jackson called their wide-open offense an offshoot of "schoolyard basketball," but there's no denying that the Suns are 8-1.

"They did not like the way they felt [last season]," Lakers guard Derek Fisher said. "You can see the determination in Steve Nash's face and Grant Hill and Jason Richardson and Stoudemire. They've taken it personal. They're on a mission this year . . . And I don't think it's even just to make the playoffs. I think they want to win."

Then comes Friday's game in Denver, which isn't in Boston or, worse for the Lakers, Portland, but in case anybody forgot, the Lakers and Nuggets were tied at two games each in the Western Conference finals last spring after the Nuggets' 120-101 Game 4 cakewalk in Denver.

Then Lamar Odom came alive, averaging 19.5 points and 11 rebounds over the next two games, and the Lakers finished off the Nuggets in six.

Something definitely carried over to this season when the teams met in San Diego for an exhibition last month.

Denver forward Kenyon Martin and Lakers guard Jordan Farmar were each called for technical fouls in the first quarter, but that was nothing.

In the second quarter, Odom, Martin and reserve Denver center Chris Andersen got into an exchange that resulted in technical fouls for Odom and Andersen. Then Sasha Vujacic was issued a technical foul, Denver guard Joey Graham was called for a flagrant foul for an elbow he threw at Vujacic, and Shannon Brown was called for a flagrant foul for a hard foul on Denver's Ty Lawson.

Friday's game should be, uh, fun.

"They're going to be ready to go up against us, especially after the little melee we had in San Diego," Kobe Bryant said. "It'll be interesting."

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mike.bresnahan@latimes.com

twitter.com/Mike_Bresnahan

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