You won’t get Los Angeles Lakers’ Kobe Bryant to admit he is slowing down. Like Pau Gasol is not contemplating his basketball mortality and neither is giving up the reigns to the Lakers any time soon. Andrew Bynum is not there to take it from them until they are ready to give it to him.
That has always how Bynum has operated. In the background. He would be the understudy, doubling as a supporter. Maybe not even recognizing his time would ever come in Los Angeles. The Lakers though know not to overlook Bynum’s importance. In their three-year Finals run, Bynum’s mere presence have proven to be a difference, giving the Lakers a front line that nobody in the league can match.
Even when Los Angeles is struggling the thought of having to match up with Bynum and Gasol in the same lineup gives teams pause. Los Angeles has a chance so long as Bynum is healthy.
His health has always been a specter hanging over him and his future. Likely he is not ever going to be rid of the knee problems that have plagued him — swelling that slowed him in Game Three against New Orleans has subsided and Bynum should play in Sunday’s Game Four matchup. But it looks like he is fighting through it and beginning to discover exactly what he can and cannot do.
Game Two against the Hornets was an excellent example of what a difference Bynum can make when he is comfortable and given the chance to play. He carried a struggling Lakers team, seeing Kobe Bryant continue to struggle to get free and Pau Gasol struggle with Emeka Okafor and Aaron Gray in the post. While the Lakers nation was waiting for those two get going, Bynum just did his work.
His 17 points and 11 rebounds, which included 8-for-11 shooting, was the difference in evening up that series and giving Bryant and Gasol the time to get into rhythm for Game Three. Bynum is averaging Playoff career highs with 14.7 points per game and 10.3 rebounds per game. More importantly, even with the bruise he suffered late in the season, he is likely as healthy as he has ever been and the most comfortable he has been with his role.
Bynum is in the game to defend, rebound and clean up. He has the length to bother any center, even Dwight Howard. And while he lacks mobility, you have to drive the paint with an eye on Bynum lurking.
Lakers fans have patiently been waiting for Bynum to become this defensive, and to some extent offensive, presence he has been throughout this postseason. Through knee injuries and trade rumors/demands, things have never been easy for Bynum. It was Kobe Bryant, after all, who told a couple of fans with a cell phone video camera to trade Bynum in so many words flat out.
Then the knee injuries came and the frustration of having to sit out. Never an easy thing for fans or for a young player.
The run to the 2009 championship was the beginning of Bynum’s redemption. He was healthy in the postseason for the first time and helped limit Dwight Howard to 15.4 points per game in the five-game series. He then continued to build in the run to the 2010 title. It only makes logical sense that 2011 would be his breakout year in the postseason as he continues to trend upward.
Lakers writers are pointing to Bynum’s aggression in Game Two as a sign that he can be more than just a defensive sidekick and presence.
“On Wednesday, Bynum stepped up, giving the Lakers a scoring threat while also fulfilling his obligations on the glass and on the defensive interior,” Vincent Bonsignore of the Los Angeles Daily News wrote. “And it wasn’t just what he did, but how he did it. Uncertainty was replaced by confidence, aggressiveness. The tepidness was gone, pushed aside by a self-assured demeanor in which he not only called for the ball, but assertively pursued the basket once he got it.
“Some of his points came off offensive rebounds, but others came on sweeping drives to the basket, confident jump shots and running hooks. And during a stretch of the second quarter when the Lakers finally began exerting their will on the Hornets, he became a go-to guy – someone his teammates looked for, then urged to look for his shot once he got the ball. And in the fourth quarter, with Bryant and Gasol on the bench the Lakers actively looked for him. And he delivered.”
Bynum displayed a new-found aggressiveness that Lakers fans just had not seen before. And that was what was so encouraging. For the first time in his career, Bynum is confident enough to play his role and then step up when his team truly needs him.
It may be correlative, but Bynum is key to the Lakers title defense.
Bryant and Gasol are not going to play forever. Bynum, an old 23 it seems, is a young center to keep a team competitive for a long time. Push aside the rumors that the Lakers could acquire Dwight Howard when he becomes a free agent in 2012 and the role Bynum may play in his acquisition, Bynum is learning to be a solid player who can play within himself. At some point, the Lakers will need him to do more.
The question is whether he will be ready — and healthy — when the time comes for him to step up. For now, his role is to provide a defensive presence and contribute offensively when he can.
But, as Game Two proved, Bynum might finally be coming around and preparing to be the Lakers biggest attraction.
Photos via DayLife.com.