By JUSTIN EINHORN
(AP) -- The Los Angeles Lakers already may be getting the hang of new coach Mike Brown's defensive-minded system. Having Andrew Bynum back could make them even tougher at that end of the floor.
Bynum returns from suspension to make his season debut Saturday in the opener of a home-and-home series with the Denver Nuggets at Staples Center.
The league banned Bynum for five games - later reduced to four due to the lockout-shortened 66-game season - for knocking down Dallas' J.J. Barea in the second round of the playoffs. Bynum is coming off a fairly pedestrian season with 11.3 points and 9.4 rebounds per game, though both averages went up in the playoffs and he looked strong in two preseason games with 41 points and 23 boards.
The 7-footer should play a key role in Brown's defense, having finished sixth in the NBA last season with 2.0 blocks per game.
Los Angeles (2-2) got off to a shaky start without him, losing to Chicago and Sacramento, but has bounced back to beat Utah and New York. The Lakers held those two opponents to averages of 76.5 points and 31.8 percent from the field.
"It's just communication, activity, understanding where we need to be when certain situations come up," forward Pau Gasol said of the improved defense. "It's just being active and continuously working."
Gasol ranks among the league leaders with 2.5 blocks per game and is averaging a team-high 9.0 rebounds along with 16.8 points.
Kobe Bryant has gotten off to a strong start despite the team playing its first four games in five nights. He's scored at least 26 points in each despite playing with a torn wrist ligament.
"Kobe be lying. Kobe ain't hurt," New York's Carmelo Anthony said with a laugh after a 99-82 loss to the Lakers on Thursday.
Bryant helped hold New York's starting backcourt to 4 of 15 from the field. The eight-time member of the NBA's All-Defensive first team has chipped in six steals this season.
"Everybody has a job, everybody has assignments," Bryant said of the defensive system. "You can hold everyone accountable in terms of where the mistakes are being made and who's making them. From that standpoint, everybody has a responsibility to one another to protect each other."
The Lakers haven't done so well on defense against Denver (2-1) recently. The Nuggets have averaged 104.0 points while going 5-2 in this series since losing to Los Angeles in the 2009 Western Conference finals. They even won the only meeting since trading Anthony to New York, 95-90 at Staples Center on April 3.
Denver has been getting worse on defense with each game this season, culminating with a 111-102 defeat at Portland on Thursday as the Blazers made 51.9 percent from the floor. The Nuggets had won their first two games, holding Dallas to 93 points and 42.1 percent shooting before letting Utah score 100 and hit 48.1 percent.
However, the Nuggets have forced at least 20 turnovers in each game and are averaging a league-best 16.0 steals.
Another area, though, in which Denver has dropped off is 3-point shooting, going 4 for 20 on Thursday.
"We had a lot of open shots and we didn't knock them down - simple as that," said Ty Lawson, who had 25 points and eight assists.
Danilo Gallinari missed all five of his 3-point tries and is 2 for 12 this season.
These teams also square off Sunday in Denver. The Lakers have lost the last three meetings in which Bryant has scored more than 20 points.
Updated December 30, 2011