LA Clippers (28-44) at LA Lakers (51-20)

By SANTOSH VENKATARAMAN, STATS Senior Writer Thursday, Mar 24, 2011 Tipoff: 10:30 pm EDT Fri Mar 25, 2011

Kobe Bryant(notes) helped the Los Angeles Lakers survive two close calls without Andrew Bynum(notes). They should be glad to have him back Friday night.

Bynum is expected to return from his suspension and provide an inside presence against Blake Griffin(notes) when the Lakers try to capture the season series from the Los Angeles Clippers.

The Lakers (51-20) have won five straight overall and seven in a row at home. The last two victories came without Bynum, suspended for a flagrant foul on Minnesota’s Michael Beasley(notes) last Friday in a 106-98 win.

Bryant, though, has keyed the Lakers maintaining their winning ways, scoring 10 of his 22 points in the fourth quarter of Sunday’s 84-80 victory over Portland and a season-high 42 in Tuesday’s 139-137 triple-overtime win over Phoenix.

Bryant just missed a triple-double against the Suns with 12 rebounds and nine assists.

“We’re the champs,” Bryant said. “We’ve got a lot of mental toughness, and we just keep on fighting. It’s not anything new.”

That contest was the first triple-overtime game at Staples Center, and the Clippers followed that Wednesday by needing two overtimes for a 127-119 home victory over Washington. Griffin recorded his first triple-double with 33 points, 17 rebounds and 10 assists in a season-high 51 1/2 minutes.

“It means a lot, but the best part about it was getting the win,” Griffin said. “It’s always great to keep your teammates involved and keep them going, but you also have to give credit to these guys for hitting shots. It was pretty draining. We just needed to tough it out.”

Griffin has matched Elton Brand’s(notes) 2001-02 franchise record of 55 double-doubles, including three in three games against the Lakers.

Bynum has played in two meetings, averaging 17.0 points and 12.0 rebounds. Against the Lakers, Griffin is averaging 18.7 points on 36.4 percent shooting - his lowest percentage against a Western Conference opponent.

The Lakers center is one of the top rebounders in the NBA this month, averaging 14.5 in eight games. He has five straight double-doubles.

Bynum’s return not only clogs the lane for Griffin, but it could make matters tougher on Clippers center Chris Kaman(notes), averaging 23.0 and 11.5 rebounds starting the last two games in place of DeAndre Jordan(notes) (pneumonia).

Even without Bynum on Tuesday, three Lakers had at least 12 rebounds, with Bryant reaching double figures for the first time in 14 games since the All-Star break.

“When he wants to do something, he puts his mind to it,” said forward Ron Artest(notes) of Bryant. “He was animated, and he carried us, and he trusted us when it most counted. That’s Black Mamba for you.”

The Lakers are 13-1 since the All-Star break to move ahead of Dallas in the race for the West’s No. 2 seed. They are 2-1 against the Clippers, with Bryant outscoring them 18-17 by himself in the third quarter of a 108-95 win Feb. 25.

The Clippers (28-44) played that game without an injured Eric Gordon(notes) and had also just traded away point guard Baron Davis(notes).

Gordon and Mo Williams(notes) comprise the Clippers’ backcourt now, and they combined for 49 points and 13 assists Wednesday. The Clippers have won seven of 11.

“We showed some pretty good resiliency in the way we gutted it out and made some plays down the stretch,” coach Vinny Del Negro said. “Nothing is easy in this league, and we battled through it.”

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