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Newcomer Bynum might boost bench

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Andrew Bynum wasted little time winning over the home crowd.

Less than a minute, actually.

Within 60 seconds of his Indiana Pacers debut, Bynum hauled in a pass in the paint, pivoted to the rim and dunked with authority.

It was his first touch of the night, and the

result drew a roar of approval from Tuesday night’s capacity crowd at Bankers Life Fieldhouse.

By game’s end, Bynum had eight points, a team-high 10 rebounds and the appreciation of fans who weren’t quite sure what to expect from the embattled former All-Star.

Bynum accrued it all in only 16 minutes of court time — his first NBA action in three months.

“I felt great. I couldn’t do anything wrong,” Bynum said of his performance during

the Pacers’ 94-83 win against the Boston Celtics. “All the rebounds came my way. I just grabbed them.

“I’m looking forward to the next game.”

Indiana’s next game is Friday at Philadelphia, where Bynum will look to prove that his impressive debut was a sign of things to come, not an aberration. The Pacers (47-17) are certainly banking on the former.

Signed as a free agent on Feb. 1 after being released by Chicago, the 7-foot, 285-pound Bynum is expected to enhance the Pacers’ bid for the NBA championship — if he regains a measure of the form that made him an All-Star in 2012 with the Los Angeles Lakers.

Widely regarded as one of the league’s top centers during his seven seasons in Los Angeles, Bynum’s career has been on a downward spiral since leaving the Lakers. A well-documented series of knee injuries and attitude issues have threatened his career ever since.

Traded to Philadelphia in 2012 after winning two NBA titles with the Lakers, Bynum sat out the entire 2012-13 season with knee injuries. He never played a game for the 76ers and was signed by Cleveland after the season.

Although he was able to return to the court at the start of the 2013-14 season, Bynum’s production nose-dived. He appeared in 24 games but was suspended indefinitely on Dec. 28, 2013, for conduct detrimental to the team. He didn’t play again for the Cavaliers and was traded to the Bulls on Jan. 7.

Chicago, in a salary cap move, waived him the same day.

Three weeks later, Indiana signed Bynum for the remainder of the season, giving him perhaps one last shot at saving his career and, more importantly for the Pacers, giving them a potentially invaluable asset in their quest the title.

“He changes the game and has a presence at both ends,” Pacers coach Frank Vogel said. “He’s a really good basketball player. He is here for a reason.

“I expected him to impact the game (on Tuesday).”

Bynum did.

Filling in at backup center for the injured Ian Mahinmi (bruised left rib), Bynum — despite wearing a large brace on his right knee — showed no signs of the knee issues that had delayed his return to action.

Looking confident and comfortable, Bynum dominated the middle during his 16-minute stint. Displaying court awareness and athleticism superior to Mahinmi, he was 3 of 4 from the field with an assist and no turnovers.

“He brought a lot. There is not much on the court he didn’t do for us,” Pacers forward Paul George said. “He really did a great job of controlling the paint, on (controlling) the boards. Offensively, he was huge.

“We made a huge emphasis to find him.”

Bynum’s performance not only won over the crowd but seemed to encourage teammates, as well. The Pacers entered on a four-game skid and exited with a much-needed win, one that might not have been possible without the new frontcourt boost.

“I think he did well, not forcing anything and playing a dominant, smash-mouth type of play,” point guard George Hill said. “It was good to have him out there. He said he felt good, so I’m happy about that.”

At the height of his All-Star days in Los Angeles, Bynum — now in his ninth NBA season — was widely regarded as one of the league’s top two centers, alongside Dwight Howard. Although those days seem long ago for a player who’s career was nearly terminated three months ago, he’s only 26 and just two years removed from his last All-Star season.

He was only 17 when the Lakers selected him in the first round of the 2005 NBA Draft out of St. Joseph High School in New Jersey.

Whether Bynum recaptures elite-player ability remains to be seen. But for the moment, he appears ready to fill a vital role on an ambitious team that is desperate to earn the No. 1 playoff seed in the Eastern Conference.

Indiana has a slight edge on the Miami Heat (44-17) and took a chance on Bynum for the specific purpose of winning the East and contending for the NBA title.

Bynum insists he’s ready to do his part. He feels comfortable in the Pacers’ system and is focused, again, on basketball.

“It’s a different location, a different time in my life,” Bynum said. “I’m looking forward to just going out and playing. Obviously, the atmosphere is a lot better from the standpoint that we are winning”

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