Lakers turn to B-team to beat Nuggets, clinch playoff berth


Kobe Bryant didn’t play. Mike Brown didn’t coach. Andrew Bynum didn’t get 30 rebounds.

It didn’t matter.

The Lakers beat the Denver Nuggets, 103-97, Friday at Staples Center, improving to 3-1 since Bryant was sidelined by a sore left shin.

Bynum had 30 points and Matt Barnes had 24 for the Lakers, who played with assistant coach John Kuester in charge when Brown left abruptly because of family reasons.

Brown went through his regular pregame briefing with reporters about 90 minutes before tipoff but headed home soon after that. He is expected to return for the Lakers’ game Sunday against Dallas, according to a team official.

“These guys went out tonight and wanted to represent Mike Brown as best they possibly can, and that’s what they did,” Kuester said.

Without Brown and Bryant, it helped to have Bynum and Barnes.

Bynum didn’t approach the head-turning 30 rebounds he took Wednesday against San Antonio but followed through on a pledge to improve his shooting.

He made 11 of 19 shots Friday after making only 24 of 64 in the previous three games (37.5%). He had eight rebounds Friday.

“Early in the game I thought it was going to be another ugly night for me,” said Bynum, who missed six of his first 10 shots. “I was able to find my hook [shot] and started rolling.”

Barnes had 24 points, his highest output in two seasons with the Lakers. He was particularly effective in the final minutes, making a three-pointer, scoring on a driving layup and feeding Bynum for a dunk with a lob from near midcourt.

He made nine of 11 shots on another night without Bryant, who is walking without pain but still doesn’t have a timetable for a return.

Bryant will now begin running again, and if that is pain-free, can begin drills that involve jumping. If there is no discomfort at that point, he will be cleared to play.

There’s a chance he will miss the rest of the regular season, though it is considered a longshot.

Bryant sitting out 10 consecutive games to end the regular season?

“I don’t think so,” Brown said before the game. “We knew it was going to be a process. We knew it

was an injury where we didn’t want to rush him back. But he is making progress.”

If the Lakers (38-22) keep winning, there’s no need to push him into the lineup. They clinched a playoff berth Friday, and with six games left it will take a lot for the Clippers or Memphis to pass them for third place in the Western Conference.

Even if the Lakers finish 3-3 down the stretch, the Clippers must go 6-1 and the Grizzlies must finish 8-0 to pass them. The Lakers own head-to-head tiebreakers against both teams.

There’s a slight chance the Lakers and Nuggets (32-27) could meet in the first round of the playoffs, which would be entertaining.

Denver’s previous three games against the Lakers were a three-point loss, a four-point loss and a nine-point victory.

Nothing was easy Friday for the Lakers. They led by 15 early in the second quarter, saw it chopped to two, raised it again to 13 but had to fight to the end after it got sliced to one.

Metta World Peace continued his recent run of sturdy play. He followed up his 26-point outburst against San Antonio — his most in three seasons with the Lakers — with 14 points and eight rebounds Friday.

The Lakers keep winning, regardless of who’s coaching or playing.