LOS ANGELES (AP) " Kobe Bryant scored 33 points, Pau Gasol added 27 points and 19 rebounds and the Los Angeles Lakers welcomed back center Andrew Bynum in a 116-102 win over the Denver Nuggets on Thursday night.
The win was the fifth straight for the Lakers (63-16) and tied them with the idle Cleveland Cavaliers (63-15) for the league lead.
Bynum, playing in his first game since tearing the medial collateral ligament in his right knee on Jan. 31, had 16 points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes.
Wearing a black brace on the knee, Bynum was greeted with cheers when his name was announced in the starting lineup. Another loud eruption came when the Lakers' announcer asked fans to welcome back the center.
Carmelo Anthony had 23 points to lead the Nuggets, who lost for the first time in nine games and failed to secure the number two seed in the Western Conference. J.R. Smith had 19 points, while Chauncey Billups and Nene each added 17.
The Nuggets got within six with 8:12 remaining when Nene scored a bucket in the paint, but Bryant turned it on. He scored six straight, including a bank shot from the left side of the key that didn't look like it had a chance, to give the Lakers an insurmountable 107-93 lead.
One of the story lines coming into the game focused on the Nuggets and their improved defense, but Los Angeles easily topped 100 points with three starters scoring in double digits.
Bynum, who started in place of Lamar Odom, didn't shy away from contact and bumped up against Denver's bigs throughout. It took him a while to get comfy in his first start, though, and he was 0-for-2 in the first quarter while losing the ball twice.
He scored nine points in the third quarter and showed flashes of his old self when finishing shots, and wound up 7-for-11 from the field.
It was Bryant and Gasol who put the Lakers ahead in the third period, when the two launched Los Angeles on a 16-5 run with less than six minutes remaining.
Shannon Brown hit a wide-open 3-pointer to start it and Gasol and Bryant combined to add 11 points in the spurt. Bryant's 3 with 1:39 remaining gave the Lakers a 13-point lead.
While most of the focus was on Bynum's return, it was Gasol who got the Lakers going. He was one rebound shy of a double-double by the end of the first quarter and had six points as part of an 8-0 run that gave Los Angeles a 32-21 lead.
Lakers coach Phil Jackson turned the game over to his bench in the second quarter, but subbed his starters back in at the 5:50 mark in an attempt to slow the Nuggets down.
They provided a spark for a few minutes before Denver went on a 12-4 run behind a pair of 3s from Smith, one a buzzer-beater that tied the game at 56 going into halftime.
Notes: Kenyon Martin missed his fourth consecutive game, but should return to the lineup on Monday when the Nuggets host Sacramento. ... Jackson wants to see how Bynum and Gasol work together before the playoffs. "They played really well together before. A big part is getting them both on the court together," Jackson said. ... The Lakers honored the memory of Angels pitcher Nick Adenhart and the two others who died in an early morning crash with a moment of silence before the game. ... Bryant needs two points to pass Charles Barkley on the NBA's career scoring list.