Dominant Bynum makes Lakers better

It was just a year ago that Andrew Bynum, who goes seven feet tall and close to 300 well-muscled pounds, delivered a gratuitously vicious forearm shiver to the rib cage of J.J. Barea, a foot shorter and 175 pounds.

It was arguably the most shameful moment in the Lakers’ long and mostly glorious postseason history. The undersized Mavericks point guard had done more than expose last year’s team, of whom much was expected. Turned out the Lakers were older and slower than anyone knew. Worse still, they were bullies.

Bynum already had a good deal of NBA experience. But in that hour, he seemed more immature than his 23 years would suggest. He celebrated his impending ejection and the four-game sweep about to conclude in barechested fashion, throwing his jersey to less than adoring fans at American Airlines Center.

Now, fast forward 51 weeks and a couple days, and Bynum has made minor history with 10 blocks in a playoff game. Only two other men have done this since blocks became a recorded stat in 1974: the Jazz’ Mark Eaton in 1985, and Houston’s Hakeem Olajuwon 22 years ago today.

In opening the 2012 postseason, Bynum tallied 10 blocks, 10 points and 13 rebounds. He is the first Laker to record a playoff triple-double since Magic Johnson. That was Game 5 against the Chicago Bulls, June 12, 1991. Bynum is only the second player ever (with the aforementioned Olajuwon) to record a playoff triple-double with double-figure blocks. By the way, of the 18 previous triple-doubles this season, only one included double-figure blocks, according to STATS LLC’s Khalid Elbayoumy.

It’s a good thing for statisticians that they only have to keep count of the blocks. For as Lakers coach Mike Brown said of Bynum, “He changed a gazillion shots in the paint.”

The Lakers’ 103-88 win over Denver felt more like a scrimmage than the inaugural game of their postseason. The Nuggets — a young team that likes to run, precisely the kind of squad that was supposed to pose a problem for LA — found themselves down 21 with five and a half minutes to go.

“He can control a game without shooting a single shot,” Brown said of Bynum. “That’s how good he is.”

Actually, that’s how talented he is. That’s how good he can be. That said, there’s more than a little merit in Brown’s observation. What’s more, as the youngest of an old and rare breed — the classically-trained big man — Bynum is a frightfully efficient scorer. He was 5 for 7 from the field Sunday, taking fewer shots than Arron Afflalo, Ty Lawson, Andre Miller and Al Harrington had misses.

Still, all this talk of Bynum and his numbers obscures what’s really happened to the Lakers these last 12 months. The loss to the Mavericks was supposed to mark the beginning of their end. Kobe Bryant had logged too many minutes. Pau Gasol seemed physically passive and psychologically beaten. Derek Fisher was no longer anyone’s idea of a starting point guard.

The new season offered the Lakers little reason for encouragement. Not only did David Stern rob the Lakers of a chance at Chris Paul, killing the deal also ruined team chemistry. Knowing that they were to be traded alienated Gasol (even more) and Lamar Odom, who then demanded to go. Odom never got over it. Gasol did.

It’s worth noting that Gasol led either team in assists Sunday, with eight. And Jordan Hill, who arrived in a deal that sent Fisher to the Thunder, had 10 points and 10 rebounds in 24 minutes.

A year later you’re starting to realize what has happened. It wasn’t the beginning of the end for the Lakers’ title hopes. Fact is, they’re a lot better off than they were. The only thing they have less of are expectations.

Bryant seems more spry. But as Brown was quick to say, “Kobe is Kobe.” The Lakers’ chances fluctuate with his supporting cast. But there was Steve Blake, three threes in the first half, looking better than he has since he arrived. Ramon Sessions is a considerable upgrade over the aged Fisher. Devin Ebanks filled in admirably and efficiently (5 for 6 from the field, solid defense) for the suspended Metta World Peace, who, judging from his tweets, remains in the midst of a psychotic episode.

And of course, Bynum.

“If he continues to play like he did,” said Brown, “We’ll be playing a long time.”

“Today, I was just being an animal on defense,” said Bynum.

That was just after the game. Later, in the locker room, his knees and ankles encased in ice, he was a little more circumspect.

“Do you like that pressure?” he was asked.

“It’s not pressure,” he said. “It’s just the truth.”

The other day, Bynum spoke of the need to make an early statement with a win over Denver.

“I didn’t put myself out there,” he said. “It’s just the truth.”

“Is this team better than it was last year?”

“We’re more focused,” said Bynum.

That’s a nice way of putting it. Another would be to suggest that the big man has done a little growing up.