LOS ANGELES (AP) — Two days of long practices and bonding over a steak dinner have the Los Angeles Lakers ready to defend their NBA championship.
They’ll begin Sunday against All-Star Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder, whose youth and speed the Lakers will counter with Kobe Bryant and experience.
Durant led the NBA in scoring with 30.1 points; Bryant was fourth-best with 27.0.
After stumbling through the end of the regular season, the Lakers are feeling good about themselves thanks to Bryant’s improved health and the return of Andrew Bynum.
Bryant sat out four of the final five games to rest a swollen right knee and a broken index finger on his right hand. He’s got a bum ankle, too. But he said the time off has revived him.
Bynum missed 13 straight games because of a strained right Achilles’ tendon. He said there was no pain or swelling after practice Saturday, and coach Phil Jackson said he hopes Bynum can play the game’s first eight minutes.
“I wish we were going already,” Bynum said.
He averaged 19.3 points on 63 percent shooting in the first three meetings against the Thunder. Overall, the Lakers won three of the teams’ four games, including two by three points. Although Bynum’s game conditioning is rusty, the Thunder have no one who can defend him.
“They’ve got so many weapons, from the first man to the end of the bench,” Durant said. “It’s going to be tough.”
Bynum and Pau Gasol give the Lakers two 7-footers to patrol the paint, something Derek Fisher compared to “playing volleyball above everyone’s heads.”
Bynum’s return means Bryant goes from playing a wing position to the guard spot, while Lamar Odom regains his role of sixth man, sparking the Lakers’ second unit.
“He’s another guy we can use to attack a team in the middle and break defenses down, which allows our perimeter guys to do their things better,” Fisher said about Bynum. “We’ve seen a lot of things that show up when Andrew’s not out there. The key is for him to stay out there.”
A year ago, the Lakers were motivated to win it all by the sting of losing to Boston in the 2008 finals. Now, they’re the defending champions trying to make a third consecutive appearance in the finals.
“The second time around you think you can get there faster. It actually takes longer,” Fisher said. “That’s the difficult part about winning multiple championships. People know you’re coming the second time down the road. There’s trees laying out in the middle of the road, there’s spikes laying out, the highway patrol is waiting for you. You got to slow down a little bit. It’s a totally different road to the title. It’s hard to convince yourself that it’s a different road.”
The Lakers went out Friday night for a steak dinner, limiting the basketball talk to reminding each other of their goal.
“We’ve committed to each other that we’re not going to allow this opportunity to just be here and be gone,” Fisher said. “We’re going to make the most of it.”
The Lakers earned the top seed in the Western Conference with 57 wins. The Thunder claimed the eighth spot to earn their first postseason berth since moving from Seattle two years ago.
“This team gains experience by the first 10 minutes of the game,” Durant said. “We’ll know how it’s going to be for the rest of the series. I think we all learn quickly here.”
Bryant averaged 32.3 points in the first three wins over the Thunder, then was held to 11 on 4-of-11 shooting while committing nine turnovers in losing the fourth game. Durant averaged 25.8 points in the series.
“I can’t approach it any differently even though it’s the playoffs,” Durant said. “I can’t be overhyped. I’ve just got to continue to just be myself and hopefully everything falls in line.”
Defending Durant will fall to Ron Artest, who had a quiet regular season while adjusting to Jackson’s triangle offense after coming from Houston.
“I’ve been guarding the best players in my career, so it’s not like something new,” Artest said. “It’s going to really come down to more the Lakers and Oklahoma City. It’s not going to come down to individual matchups. It’s really going to come down to team.”
Lakers reserve center DJ Mbenga got elbowed in the head for the second straight day Saturday — about 3 inches from where he was struck a day earlier — and was due to undergo a CT scan. A team spokesman said Mbenga didn’t sustain a concussion from the first blow.