Kobe Bryant was back, without a limp. So was Andrew Bynum, though he returned with a frown.
The Lakers, an injured but successful bunch when last seen on a basketball court, returned to practice Monday with some promising health updates outweighing the negative ones.
Bryant practiced Monday after spending All-Star weekend in Dallas, where the extent of his activities was making promotional appearances and passing the ball to Shannon Brown in the dunk contest.
He will play Tuesday against Golden State, Bryant's first game since aggravating a sprained ankle Feb. 5. He did not talk to reporters Monday.
"He said he didn't have the normal strength he'd like to have, but it'll come back," Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said. "That's just getting back in the flow and getting some strength there again, reconditioning it. He hasn't played in two weeks, so there's a lot of things that he was trying out and trying to figure out -- passes that went awry and shots he was reluctant to shoot -- but he'll come [around]."
Bynum will come around too. At least, that's the Lakers' hope.
The 22-year-old center also practiced Monday but didn't seem as far along as Bryant after missing two games because of a swollen bursa sac and a bruise in his right hip.
"I'm definitely limited, but I'm going to try to give it a go," Bynum said. "I just want to see if it'll get worse. Every step you take, the muscle rubs over the top of it and it's real painful."
The worst injury news of the day involved forward Luke Walton, who will take another indefinite leave because of persistent back pain caused by a pinched nerve. Walton missed two months this season because of his back.
"Right now it's kind of experimental with Luke," Jackson said. "We're trying to see where he can get to in this season and can continue on, hopefully, without having to do anything that would eliminate his year."
Season-ending surgery would be a worst-case scenario for Walton.
In Dallas over the weekend, Bryant spoke about the benefits of sitting out the last three games, all of which were victories against quality Western Conference teams.
"I'll definitely be healthier than I was the last month, so that's a plus," he said. "I won't have to limp around, think up shortcuts during the course of the game. I can play with a lot of energy the way I was used to playing."
The bigger picture
Then there's the general well-being of the Lakers.
They are 5 1/2 games ahead of Denver in the Western Conference but two games behind Cleveland for the NBA's best record, providing their main target the next two months.
The Lakers (41-13) aren't that far removed from a historically sour loss in Boston (see NBA Finals, 2008, 39-point drubbing) and are cognizant they already lost two physically pounding games against the Cavaliers this season. They'll take any playoff advantage they can get, starting with home court.
"It's a psychological goal as much as anything," Jackson said.
Said Bryant: "I think we're right where we want to be, considering all our injuries. Pau [Gasol] missed 17 games, Andrew went down, I missed a couple. Considering all the injuries we've had and to still be able to play with the rhythm that we've been playing with, I'm very pleased where we are."
Cleveland is reportedly pursuing Phoenix forward Amare Stoudemire and Dallas improved by acquiring former Lakers forward Caron Butler and shot-blocking center Brendan Haywood from Washington. Are the Lakers still the team to beat?
"We're the champions, absolutely," Bryant said in Dallas. "I said the same thing about Boston the year before. Until somebody knocks you off, you're the team to beat. . . . I feel confident with what we've got. I like our size. I like our chemistry."
Bryant definitely noticed the Lakers' record without him in the days leading up to the All-Star break. They ended a nine-game losing streak in Portland, thumped San Antonio at Staples Center and won decisively in Utah to end the Jazz's nine-game winning streak.
"One of the things we talked about is everybody playing with a bigger sense of urgency. I think that happened," Bryant said. "As soon as I went down, it was, 'OK, we have to step up, we have to play because we can't rely on Kobe the last two minutes of the game to win the game for us. We've got to step up and play from the opening tip and play with that championship urgency.'
"I think it's a blessing in disguise so when I get back, everybody already has that sense of urgency that they've been playing with."
The Lakers aren't expected to make any major moves before Thursday's trade deadline because they think they're already shelling out enough money this season -- $91.3 million in payroll and an additional $21.4 million in luxury taxes.
Lakers owner Jerry Buss believes this team is good enough to win a championship and does not want to add more salary this season, much less put extra money on the books for upcoming seasons.
Chicago Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich remains an enticing option as a reserve, but he has two more years on his contract: $9 million next season and $8 million in 2011-12. The Lakers have already committed $83.7 million to only eight players for next season.
In other words, what you see is probably what you're going to get for the rest of this season.
Jackson took stock of Walton's injury, the Dallas trade and other possible moves by competitors in the next two days and shrugged.
"It won't force us to make a deal. I don't think that's necessary," he said. "But as you saw when Ron [Artest] had a poor shooting outing in Utah. . . . I put Sasha [Vujacic] in and he changed the game for us the other night. We still have another guy there in Adam [Morrison] that we can play in reserve."
Times staff writer Mark Heisler contributed to this report.