LOS ANGELES – Andrew Bynum leaned over, his hands on his knees, his chest heaving from his first minutes of game action in nearly a month.
Other than being out of breath, Bynum displayed little rust in teaming with Pau Gasol to dominate the middle in the Los Angeles Lakers’ 87-79 victory against the Oklahoma City Thunder in their playoff series opener Sunday.
Bynum ignited the Staples Center crowd with a monster one-handed dunk over a defenceless Nenad Krstic in the second quarter that pushed the Lakers’ lead to 17.
“It kind of got me going,” Bynum said. “It hyped the team up. That’s the kind of player I can be – exciting.”
Gasol scored 19 points, Bynum added 13 and Kobe Bryant had 21 points on 6-of-19 shooting after missing four of the final five regular season games to rest his swollen right knee and broken right index finger.
“I just have less margin for error with the finger,” he said. “You just got to make adjustments, change your stroke up a little bit.”
Kevin Durant led the Thunder with 24 points on 7-of-24 shooting in his playoff debut – under the 30.1 average of the NBA’s youngest-ever scoring champion. Former UCLA star Russell Westbrook added 23.
“I was frustrated,” said Durant, who tossed up some airballs and went 9 of 11 from the line. “I was missing shots I normally make. They felt good leaving my hand. If I made 4-5 more shots, maybe it’s a different game.”
Bynum made a difference for the Lakers.
He returned from a 13-game absence because of a strained right Achilles’ tendon, teaming with fellow seven-footer Gasol to pull down a combined 25 rebounds and deny the Thunder key second-chance baskets. Bynum tied his career playoff high with four blocks.
“I had a couple little twinges, but nothing serious,” he said. “Conditioning in the first quarter was tough. The more I keep playing with this aggressive nature, I’ll get better.”
Game 2 in the best-of-7 series is Tuesday at Staples Center.
“We could’ve definitely played a lot better, but at this stage you just got to win games,” Bryant said. “It doesn’t really matter how.”
History is on the Lakers’ side against the NBA’s youngest team, with an average age of 25 years and 42 days. When coach Phil Jackson wins Game 1 of any series, his teams are 45-0.
“We eked the game out,” Jackson said. “In the second half, we played not up to what we want to play. The energy wasn’t what it could be.”
That wasn’t a problem in the beginning.
The Lakers came out blazing against the overwhelmed Thunder, pounding the ball inside to Bynum and Gasol while shooting 54 per cent and taking a 27-13 lead in the first quarter.
“They really play off each other, take their time and shoot a high field-goal percentage,” Lamar Odom said. “They make the game easy for us as a team.”
In the playoffs for the first time since moving from Seattle two years ago, the Thunder shot 26 per cent, leading to their fewest points in an opening period all season.
“Our effort was really good,” coach Scott Brooks said. “We just didn’t have anything going (offensively). We were holding the ball and standing around too much.”
Oklahoma City settled down the rest of the way, but never got closer than six points against the defending champions, who are seeking a third straight trip to the NBA finals.
“When you have Bynum, Gasol and Lamar Odom all in at the same time, I mean it’s a lot of reaching, a lot of hands and that’s a lot of length,” Westbrook said. “It’s tough for us, but I think we’re going to continue to play, continue to compete and we’ll have a chance.”
With Bryant, Gasol, Derek Fisher and Ron Artest on the bench to start the fourth, Jordan Farmar scored the Lakers’ first five points despite a strained left hamstring to stretch a six-point lead to 11.
Bryant and Odom hit consecutive three-pointers, extending the lead the Lakers held the entire game to 77-66.
A pair of free throws by Durant got the Thunder to 79-73 with 3½ minutes remaining. They never got any closer. Fisher hit a three-pointer that pushed the Lakers’ lead to 84-74 before Bryant picked up his fifth foul.
“We could’ve came here and got a ‘W,”‘ Durant said. “We just couldn’t get over the hump.”
Westbrook carried the Thunder early in the third, and Durant scored their final five points to leave them trailing 64-56 going into the final 12 minutes. Fisher, Artest and Odom were in foul trouble and Bryant scored a single point on a free throw as they played to a draw in the third.
The Thunder outscored the Lakers 26-20 in the second quarter, when Los Angeles got away from the inside game of Bynum and Gasol and settled for jump shots instead. Their 17-point lead dwindled to 47-39 at the break.
Westbrook scored the Thunder’s final eight points of the half and their first two of the third, drawing them within six.
NOTES: Lakers C DJ Mbenga had retinal surgery on his left eye after getting struck in practice Saturday, his second hit in the head in two days. … Lakers G Sasha Vujacic sat out with a severely sprained left ankle. … In keeping with tradition, Jackson wore his most recent championship ring from 2009. “It’s a very difficult ring to wear,” he said. “I watch shaking hands with people, particularly those who want to squeeze your hand really hard.” … Celeb sightings: Jack Nicholson, Andy Garcia, Teri Hatcher, New York Jets QB Mark Sanchez, Glenn Frey, Dyan Cannon, Jeffrey Katzenberg, Penny Marshall and David Arquette.