Bynum lengthens Lakers' championship hopes

Johnny Ludden
Yahoo Sports

LOS ANGELES – He lumbered down the hallway, each step looking more painful than the one before it. Already, the Los Angeles Lakers had decided to hold him out of Friday's game in Portland. No sense risking his right leg swelling again.

The playoffs start next week, and he knows he won't be completely right. True relief won't come until the end of the season. But if his leg aches, it aches. He'll gut his way through the pain because he also knows this much: The Lakers can't win without him.

Every team needs a coach, right?

Such is the state of the Lakers these days that their biggest health concern belongs to Phil Jackson, their 63-year-old Zen Master, who skipped the team's flight to Oregon to rest his ailing leg.

As for the Lakers' other giant gimp?

On Thursday, Andrew Bynum let the NBA know he's doing just fine, thank you very much. A little sluggish, a little clumsy, but still strong enough to total 16 points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes against the closest thing to a competitor the Lakers have in the Western Conference. Unlike Jackson, Bynum wasn't hurting after his night's work.

"It was almost like he never went out," forward Pau Gasol said after Bynum helped push the Lakers to a 116-102 victory over the Denver Nuggets.

That should worry a few opposing coaches. Bynum's return put the rest of the West – if not also Cleveland, Boston and Orlando – on notice. Unlike a year ago, the Lakers look like they'll enter the postseason with a healthy, loaded roster. Unlike a year ago, they'll have their talented, young 7-foot center filling the middle of the lane.

Bynum had been absent for nearly half the season, missing 32 games after injuring his right knee on Jan. 31. Considering he never made it back to the lineup a year ago after leaving midseason with a left knee injury, the Lakers and their fans saw reason to celebrate on Thursday. He received a standing ovation during introductions, and after a message on the overhead scoreboard proclaimed, "Bynum's baaaack!" the roar only grew louder.

"It felt great to hear that," Bynum said. "I know it's a little selfish, but it's nice to hear people saying the team can't win it all without you."

The Lakers won enough without Bynum, going 25-7 while he was out. With Lamar Odom starting in Bynum's place, the Lakers beat both the Celtics and Cavaliers on the road, prompting Nuggets coach George Karl to wonder aloud whether Los Angeles really needed its center.

"Sometimes you can have too much talent out there," Karl said at the time, "and it can be confusing."

Give Karl credit. He's always working an angle, forever searching for some sort of mental edge, even if he usually cuts himself in the process. During the playoffs four years ago, he complained that San Antonio Spurs guard Manu Ginobili was bad for basketball. What Ginobili was really bad for was Karl and his Nuggets.

Before the Nuggets took the floor Thursday, Karl again sounded like he needed some convincing about Bynum's value.

"I think they're a top two or three team in basketball with Odom," Karl said. "Can they get to the top of the mountain with two 7-footers? There haven't been a lot of teams in the last 10 years to play two 7-footers. The game has actually gone away from the big guy and has gone away from the paint power game."

Technically, Karl is right. Tim Duncan was closer to 6-10 than 7 feet when David Robinson stood next to him for two championships.

The Lakers naturally see little reason to fret over Karl's sense of basketball history, given the fact that Bynum has already proven he can play alongside Gasol. Against the Nuggets, he helped occupy the defense, freeing Gasol to grab a career-high 19 rebounds. Yes, the Nuggets were missing Kenyon Martin, and, yes, they were playing on the second night of a back-to-back. But Bynum was playing his first game in more than two months. Does anyone think he won't get better over the coming weeks?

Bynum gave himself a "B, B+" for his performance. He was heavy-legged, at times, and rarely explosive. But gradually he shook off some of his rust. Nene, the Nuggets' bullish center, had trouble keeping Bynum from posting deep in the lane in the second half. Once, Bynum tossed in a short jump hook over Nene's head. On another possession, he spun free of Nene before banking in a shot.

Bynum also collected five fouls in those 21 minutes and didn't block a single shot, so his defense will need to improve. But Jackson's willingness to start Bynum also signaled that he's confident his young center can contribute in the playoffs.

"Hopefully, these next three games, we can get him to the point where he's somewhere close to where he was," said Jackson, who didn't seem worried about Bynum playing in the second game of the back-to-back in Portland.

Kobe Bryant already saw the difference Bynum can make, saying: "We're a much, much deeper team."

With Bynum starting, Odom went back to the bench, providing the Lakers' reserves some much-needed punch. Suddenly, the struggles of Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic and Luke Walton didn't seem so dire. The emergence of backup guard Shannon Brown also could further lengthen the Lakers' bench for the playoffs.

Gasol figures to receive the biggest benefit from having Bynum back. Jackson should now have the luxury to grant Gasol an additional two- to three-minute break, further preserving his legs for the fourth quarter.

"Whenever you add someone that good," Odom said, " … the team is going to feel a lot better."

The Nuggets couldn't say the same. They jetted out of town like every other supposed Western contender before them, hoping to put off any playoff date with the Lakers as long as possible.

"Obviously. they felt it was a statement game for them, but we felt the same way," Bryant said. "We wanted to come out and send a message."

They did that much. Let the West beware: These days, only the Lakers' coach is limping.