Lakers center Andrew Bynum works in the post against Orlando center Dwight… (Gary A. Vasquez / US Presswire )
After all the nonsense they unveiled last month, after all the silliness with losses in Charlotte and Cleveland, the Lakers took another step toward seriousness.
They came back from a successful road trip and then throttled the Orlando Magic on Monday at Staples Center, 97-84, giving their fans further hope that a herky-jerky season was comfortably in the past.
Kobe Bryant played despite a sprained ankle he called the worst of his career, Andrew Bynum continued to come of age— against the game's top center, no less — and the Lakers moved to 10-1 since the All-Star break.
Andrew Bynum or Dwight Howard? A central casting issue for Lakers
Of greater interest, they pulled into a tie with Dallas for second place in the Western Conference.
Since becoming a punchline over All-Star weekend (Cleveland? Charlotte?), the Lakers have beaten San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Dallas, Orlando, Portland and Atlanta (twice).
What if they hadn't fumbled away those final few minutes against Miami?
Lakers keeping an eye on big picture
Forget about avenging an 89-75 loss last month to Orlando in which they made two of 16 from three-point range and an equally appalling seven of 15 from the free-throw line. The Lakers (48-20) are now avenging their entire regular season.
It's tough to argue with their last four weeks, though they didn't give fans much to cheer in the first half Monday, trailing, 46-41.
Then came the return of a defense that has been unfriendly at best in recent weeks. Orlando was limited to 38 second-half points.
Bryant didn't shoot well (seven for 19) but the fact he played was impressive in its own right. He had 16 points, five rebounds and four assists in 30 minutes.
Bynum had 10 points, tied a career-high with 18 rebounds and also had four blocked shots. Dwight Howard's stats were better (22 points, 15 rebounds) but Bynum had plenty of moments to savor despite foul trouble that limited him to 27 minutes.
It was fascinating to ponder how the rapidly improving Bynum would fare against the perennial All-Star.
Earlier in the day, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said Howard would be a challenge for Bynum because of "the power that he brings to that position."
But Bynum blocked Howard's shot twice in the first quarter, earning a roar of approval from the crowd each time.
Bynum had six points, 11 rebounds and three blocked shots, but the Lakers trailed, 25-19.
Howard noticed Bynum's hustle. He even joked around with Bynum after the Lakers center beat him to a loose ball in the second quarter. Bynum is averaging 15.8 rebounds over his last six games.
"His teammates are encouraging him to get all the rebounds," Jackson said. "He sees that Pau [Gasol] is in the top five or six in rebounding…and he's going to replace him [there]."
Howard has been the NBA's most dominant rebounder over the last several years. Maybe Bynum will join him one day.
"I think if I get the same focus and just go after the rock, for sure, if I stay healthy," Bynum said.
As for Bryant …
He was able to play 48 hours after saying his left ankle was the size of a baseball because, apparently, his ankles can't get much worse.
"He's probably stretched all the ligaments and tendons out in his ankles so he doesn't have a whole lot of tearing going on," Jackson said.
Bryant started out two for 11 but made five of his last eight shots. He left for the locker room to begin treatment with three minutes left to play.
"It's still tender, obviously," Jackson said.
The same couldn't be said for the Lakers. They're coming to play, in what was supposed to be a rugged part of the schedule.