For Odom, burden of leading Lakers too heavy

BOSTON – Nearly two dozen times, Lamar Odom(notes) repeated the phrase: “as a team.” Standing in the corner of the Los Angeles Lakers’ locker room, he said it again and again, a reflexive, deflective answer about how to save the Lakers.

Andrew Bynum's sore right knee limited him to just 12 minutes in the Lakers' Game 4 loss.
(Getty Images)

“As a team,” the Lakers need to rebound better. “As a team” they need to box out. “As a team,” they need to move the ball on offense.

The Boston Celtics had just evened the NBA Finals at 2-2 on Thursday night. The Lakers’ starting center Andrew Bynum(notes) spent most of the game on the bench, where his swollen right knee made him ineffective and left L.A.’s season hanging in the balance. Without Bynum playing and with Odom filling in big minutes, the Celtics outscored the Lakers by 20 in the paint, grabbed 16 offensive rebounds and won the overall battle of the boards by seven.

The Lakers’ offense became stagnant, their ball movement slowed and the wheels slowly came off as Celtics role players made circus shots around the rim.

Bynum said he should be able to play in Sunday’s Game 5, but no one can be sure how effective he’ll be or how long he’ll last. He has swelling in the back of his knee, which is more difficult to treat and can quickly flare up. There’s an extra day off before Game 5, but afterward the series returns to the every-other-day format.

The one certainty is that Lamar Odom isn’t going to volunteer to save the Lakers. Odom has always been most comfortable as a role player, not the star. That isn’t going to change, even as the Lakers grow desperate for him to step up.

“I’m not going to put it on my shoulders to win or lose the game,” Odom said. “We have to play together as a team.”

This is Lamar Odom in full. The personality that happily allows him to defer to others and at times makes him the ultimate third or fourth option is the same one that prevents him from assuming the pressure of stepping into an expanded set of responsibilities.

He’s always had the talent to be one of the elite players in the game. He just never had the desire to take the job.

“We have to make up for his size and shot-blocking ability and the way he protects the rim,” Odom said of Bynum. “We have to realize as a team what he gives us and what Lamar gives us. As a team we have to rebound better. We gave [rebounds] up as a team. We have to box out as a team.”

Wait, there’s more.

“It’s always team defense … we have to move the ball as a team … we do everything as a team … as a team we have to figure out what Andrew gave us and what we’re going to miss.”

Odom isn’t wrong. The game is won as a team. But the fact he wasn’t vocalizing an aggressive, ready-for-the-challenge mentality is worrisome. Someone needs to make something happen inside. Someone has to stop Glen Davis(notes) from pouring in 18 points. Someone has to play bigger than usual.

“He’s 7-foot, 300 pounds,” Odom noted of Bynum.

Odom finished the game with 10 points and seven rebounds. He had his moments, but he wasn’t engaged for stretches early in the game.

“I thought Lamar was going to kind of sit this one out,” Phil Jackson said. “He wasn’t having any success and I though the scoring Davis did at the other end of the floor affected Lamar’s game.”

Lamar Odom says he's "not going to put it on my shoulders to win or lose the game.” The Lakers, he says, need to win "as a team."
(Getty Images)

Kobe Bryant(notes) has been hard on his teammates all series, trying to will them to victory. Odom has never taken well to that kind of motivation. If there’s another way to make this happen, though, no one knows what it is. How do you make the reluctant star lift himself to greatness?

The Lakers need Bynum back to play major minutes and allow Odom to be comfortable with his responsibilities.

“It bothered us in the second half not having Andrew be able to come out and play,” Jackson said. “He tried a couple minutes, but it wasn’t there for him.”

Jackson believes the extra day will help Bynum for Sunday. There was talk around the Lakers they should’ve sat him in Game 4 and given him five days off. There was also no guarantee that would’ve worked.

Once again, Bynum’s body is breaking down, and now it’s at the most desperate of times. The Lakers needed him in 2008 when the Celtics won the Finals. They may need him even more now.

It’s a best-of-three series now for the NBA title, and while the Lakers still have home-court advantage, no one wants to go back to L.A. on the brink.

Everyone in the Lakers’ locker room understood the situation. They also heard the message Bynum’s replacement was delivering in crystal clarity. Lamar Odom isn’t putting this team, these Finals, this championship on his shoulders.

He’ll do what he can, but he wants no part of the pressure of being the hero. Not now, not ever. He’ll defer to the team and hope for the best.

Dan Wetzel is Yahoo! Sports' national columnist. He is the co-author of the book "Death to the BCS: The Definitive Case Against the Bowl Championship Series," which following five printings of the first edition was re-released in a second, updated edition in October. Follow him on Twitter. Send Dan a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.
Updated Friday, Jun 11, 2010