Kobe Bryant walked out of the visitor's locker room to a few dozen fans waiting with hugs and handshakes for the Los Angeles Lakers' star and a circle of reporters ready to stick a microphone near his face.
Golden State Warriors co-owner Peter Guber also took his turn to smile for a photo with No. 24.
Even when he doesn't play, everything in Lakerland still revolves around Bryant.
Soon, it really will again.
Andrew Bynum had 31 points and nine rebounds, Pau Gasol recorded a triple-double and Los Angeles beat the undermanned Warriors 99-87 Wednesday night in what should be its last game without the injured Bryant.
The Lakers' franchise player pronounced himself pain-free and ready to return Friday night at surging San Antonio — which handed the Lakers their worst loss of the season a night earlier — and his team better for his seven-game absence because of a bruised left shin.
"It's been good to see how much the guys have progressed in doing things they ordinarily would not try to do," Bryant said. "Now when I'm not out there, you have to do other things. You have to experiment with your game, and they had a great deal of success with that and their confidence is at a high level, which is great."
Los Angeles aced its last test — albeit an easy one — without its star.
Gasol finished with 22 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists to help the Lakers build a 17-point lead by the second quarter and cruise to the win — and much-needed after Tuesday's 112-91 home loss to San Antonio. The victory kept the Lakers a half-game ahead of the Clippers in the Pacific Division.
"I'm so happy to have Kobe back — if he comes back," said teammate Metta World Peace, who had 18 points and nine assists. "Get him back in shape. I came here to play with Kobe. I know what type of player Kobe is, and I want to win some rings."
Los Angeles still had several lapses and often looked lethargic playing the second night in a row.
But Bynum and Gasol dominated whenever the twin 7-footers wanted against Golden State's fraud of a frontline, tipping balls around the rim — it seemed they were playing volleyball against each other at times. Bynum scored 17 points in the first quarter, including a one-handed dunk off an uncontested lob from Steve Blake.
Bynum and Gasol combined to go 15 for 15 on free throws.
Blake's reverse layup highlighted a 15-4 run to start the second quarter, giving the Lakers a 47-30 lead that allowed them to coast the rest of the way. Golden State had brief bursts, slicing the lead to only eight at the half, but Los Angeles never had to be at its best — or full strength — to complete a sweep of the teams' four-game season series.
The Lakers finished with a season-high 34 assists.
"That's always a point of emphasis," Lakers coach Mike Brown said. "For us, we don't always have guys who can create off the dribble, so we try to go through our bigs and get some guys some looks if the ball goes inside-out. Our guys did a great job of sharing the ball all night."
Just the kind of performance Los Angeles has been striving for all season.
With no chance of catching Oklahoma City or San Antonio for the Western Conference's second seed, holding off its Staples Center co-tenants and getting Bryant ready for the playoffs is paramount. Bryant did some shooting and running drills about three hours before tipoff, saying he's "full-weight bearing. I'm good."
The Lakers landed in just the right place for a turnaround game.
Golden State scored the final seven points against the Lakers' third-string to make the final score seem close.
Klay Thompson scored 17 points and Dorell Wright had 12 points and seven rebounds for a Warriors team wrapping up the end of another sorry season. Despite rookie coach Mark Jackson's playoff promise, Golden State has lost 18 of its past 22 games.
The Warriors played without starters David Lee (strained groin) and Andris Biedrins (mild concussion) and backup point guard Nate Robinson (right hamstring). Andrew Bogut (fractured left ankle) and Stephen Curry (sprained right ankle) have long been out for the season.
That forced Jackson — who started all three of the team's draft picks this season along with reserve center Mickell Gladness, who was originally signed to a 10-day contract in late March — to refute questions again about the franchise intentionally losing to protect its first-round draft pick.
Utah holds the pick this year as part of a previous trade, and the only way the Warriors keep it is if they finish in the bottom seven of the league after the draft lottery. Golden State entered the night in eighth.
"I'm a man with tremendous faith. I don't look at where I'm at I look at where I'm going and where I'm going to be," Jackson said. "As long as you don't get caught up in where you are then it's very easy to stay excited about the promise (of the future). I know where I'm headed."
NOTES: Curry said he likely won't test his ankle fully for at least another month. ... Oakland Raiders owner Mark Davis sat courtside wearing white pants and a white long-sleeve shirt with the team's logo.
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