Bynum is key to Kobe's title quest
It’s fashionable to say that these teams, like the series they’re playing in, are as big as their biggest stars. The NBA is a star-driven league. The championship round is a time for stars to shine. And so on. And so on. Ad infinitum.
To be sure, the biggest star in The Finals is Kobe Bryant. What happens tonight, and quite possibly Thursday, will have great bearing on his standing in the game. It will go a long way toward determining his place for posterity.
Was he truly Jordanesque, or something a little less?
But while this kind of talk fills the hours before tipoff, it misses the point. Kobe is what Kobe is. No one accused him of being selfish after shooting 10 for 29 in Game 3 at Boston. Rather, the "same-old-Kobe" critique wasn’t heard until after Game 5, when the Lakers lost despite 38 points from Bryant, who was 13-for-27 from the field.
So what changed? Kobe? No. Hell, no.
In fact, for all this talk of stars, Bryant’s best chance at another championship rests on the least star-like of his teammates. That would be Andrew Bynum, who at 22, rarely speaks above a whisper and retains something of a too-tall adolescent gait.
More to the point, though, he can play. Actually, let me rephrase that: he can play when healthy, which is about half the time. But now as ever, he’s the key variable in this series, not to mention the most delicate.
He didn’t play in the 2008 Lakers-Celtics Finals and Los Angeles lost in six games. And if, for the sake of argument, he doesn't play tonight, the Lakers will lose in six again. Still, everybody wants to talk about Kobe Bryant.
Who will show up for this last game or two: the MVP of the 2009 Finals or his evil, shot-happy twin?
Sounds good. But the outcome of the series will have a lot more to do with which Andrew Bynum shows up. Will it be the player who dominated the paint in the first three games, or the guy hobbled, yet again, by a knee that can no longer by helped by mere draining?
All of a sudden, Bryant looks like he did two years ago? Of course he does. He’s playing without Bynum again. And so’s Pau Gasol, for that matter. It's not a toughness issue. It's a Bynum issue. I know: Bynum logged a lot of minutes the other night. The real question – and I acknowledge posing it in hindsight - is why, given the tenuous state of his meniscus? If he couldn’t do anything on the floor, he was better off not trying.
Before Game 5, Phil Jackson was asked if the team had considered flying Bynum home to rest after his knee had been drained on Saturday.
“No,” said the coach. “Didn’t even consider it.”
Jackson might want that one back. The Lakers didn’t get much out of Bynum’s 32 minutes: three baskets and a single rebound in a six-point loss. Oh, yeah, and a cross-country flight with a newly-inflamed knee.
Even with a torn meniscus, Bynum averaged 13.3 points, 32 minutes and 7.3 rebounds through the first three games, according to STATS LLC. He blocked eight shots (seven in game 2, which Rajon Rondo practically stole), and took 19 free throws. In the two games since, he’s averaging 4 points, 22 minutes and 2 rebounds. He hasn’t blocked a shot or been to the free-throw line.
Sure, Lamar Odom’s game goes up and down, fluctuating wildly from night to night. But against a team like the Celtics, all that Odom can do isn’t too much. He’s long, but he’s not big. He can’t clog the middle. He can’t take the pressure off Gasol. Bynum can – and more when he’s healthy.
It’s not a coincidence that Glen Davis, who goes about six-seven, went off in Game 4, what with Bynum playing only 12 minutes. Nor is it an accident that Kevin Garnett finally looked like a star again in Game 5. According to most post-game proclamations, Garnett is back!!! No, he’s not. Bynum is gimpy.
Everybody likes to talk about big shots, a compulsion that necessitates discussion of big stars like Kobe and Paul Pierce. But the truth is, each game has gone to the team with the most rebounds. And there’s no way the Lakers are winning a battle of the boards without Andrew Bynum.
So let everybody keep talking about Kobe being so 2008. It passes the time until tipoff. Just know that for Boston, the series is a much simpler proposition.
No Bynum, no problem.