LOS ANGELES – Andrew Bynum(notes) squeezed his right knee, bowed his head, and for the first time in their star-crossed season, the Los Angeles Lakers had a real reason to worry. They can live with a five-game losing streak, with their backup point guard calling in sick with chickenpox, with another important reserve tweaking his own right knee. They've learned to weather the occasional game where Kobe Bryant(notes) shoots too much or Ron Artest(notes) thinks too little. They can even stomach another two months of "Khloe & Lamar" episodes.
But these Lakers can't win a third straight championship without their young 7-foot center, which is why the sight of Bynum sitting on the court Tuesday night, grimacing in pain, too weak to stand after his knee had buckled, sent a shiver through the NBA's reigning champs.
"He allows us to be the dominant team we're capable of being," Derek Fisher(notes) said some two hours later in the Lakers' subdued locker room. "So it's hard to think of not having him – for any amount of time."
The Lakers will know soon enough if they've lost Bynum for only a night. He walked out of the locker room late Tuesday without a crutch, carrying only a slight limp, a date with an MRI tube on his appointment calendar. He said he felt better already. He stayed behind to undergo tests Wednesday while the team flew to Sacramento for its final game of the regular season. If the tests show a routine hyperextension, he could be back in the lineup for L.A.'s playoff opener this weekend. If there's a bone bruise, he could miss another game or two.
And if it's worse?
The Lakers aren't ready to accept that possibility, and understandably so. Even if the injury turns out to be more scary than significant, the sight of Bynum once again crumpling to the court underscored just how valuable he's become to their three-peat aspirations.
Already, this playoff run was shaping up to be the most challenging of the past four years for the Lakers. They'll begin the postseason with questions about their depth and shooting. If they can't beat the Sacramento Kings with a short roster, there's a good chance they'll have home-court advantage for just one round. Their biggest rivals in the West – the San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks and Oklahoma City Thunder – have all improved.
"I probably wouldn't bet against them," one Western Conference scout said of the Lakers. "But they do look a little more vulnerable."
The scout's assessment came before Bynum was hurt. Health seemed to be the least of the Lakers' worries, especially compared to a year ago when Bryant and Bynum both grinded through the playoffs on knees which needed surgery. Then Matt Barnes(notes) showed up at Tuesday's shootaround with his right knee again aching. Steve Blake(notes) stayed home after learning he has chickenpox – perhaps a bigger concern because Bynum is among those on the team who have never had the contagious illness.
Barnes might be back for the start of the playoffs. Blake could miss at least the first two games. And none of that mattered once Bynum's knee bent after he stepped on the feet of Spurs forward DeJuan Blair(notes) while running in the second quarter. Bynum stayed seated on the court for a few minutes, then eventually rose and walked off the court with a stiff limp. He flung a towel over his head as he disappeared down the tunnel leading to the Lakers' locker room. When the arena's overhead video screen showed a replay of Bynum's knee buckling, the crowd groaned.
With Bynum, the Lakers are conditioned to fear the worst. He missed their run to the NBA Finals in 2008 after dislocating his left kneecap. He played against the Orlando Magic in the Finals in '09 but was limited because of a partially torn ligament in his right knee. A year ago, he tore cartilage in his right knee in the Lakers' first-round series with the Thunder and played the duration of the postseason despite having the knee drained three times. He eventually had surgery during the summer and missed the first 24 games of this season.
"We've seen him go down a couple times that have been debilitating," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "So there's a concern."
Along the way, the Lakers survived without Bynum. Lamar Odom(notes) moved into the starting lineup and the Lakers played a little faster. Usually – the '08 Finals against the Boston Celtics being a big exception – they continued to win.
No longer is Bynum a luxury, an after-market accessory. He's become essential to the Lakers' title hopes, and that's a testament to how much he's grown. The Lakers won 17 of their first 18 games after the All-Star break, and it's not a coincidence that surge came as Bynum regained his health and conditioning. He was the single-biggest reason L.A. looked like the league's most dominant team until two weeks ago.
The Lakers now depend on him in ways they never had. They adjusted their defense to take advantage of his shot-blocking, and he's overwhelmed opponent after opponent on the boards. During one impressive seven-game stretch, he averaged 15.7 rebounds. With Artest and Pau Gasol(notes) flanking Bynum, there's not a frontline in the league which can match the Lakers' combination of length and physicality. And when Gasol's not on the floor, the Lakers have used Bynum to help steady their offense at the start of fourth quarters.
"I don't think there's any secret what he brings to us," Fisher said.
Not everyone in Lakerland has seen the potential in Bynum – or been patient enough to wait for it. Before Gasol came along, Kobe wanted Bynum traded for Jason Kidd(notes). When the Lakers struggled just two months ago, an online poll showed 75 percent of fans were in favor of sending Bynum to Denver for Carmelo Anthony(notes).
In truth, the Lakers' championship push may be more fragile than they – or anyone else – ever thought. They finally won for the first time in six games on Tuesday, but beat a Spurs team that sat four starters – including Tim Duncan(notes), Manu Ginobili(notes) and Tony Parker(notes). Aside from securing no worse than the West's No. 3 seed, there was little positive for the Lakers to take from the game.
Kobe and the rest of L.A.'s stars had to stay on the floor until less than two minutes remained to finish off a San Antonio lineup that included Chris Quinn(notes), Gary Neal(notes), Danny Green(notes), Matt Bonner(notes) and Blair. Each shot the Spurs made was a victory itself, forcing the Lakers to work harder than they wanted, frustrating them all the more. Bryant picked up his 15th technical, stalked to the sideline, hit his chair and angrily flung a towel toward the end of the bench. Jackson chewed out Odom for leaving Bonner alone for a 3-pointer, and Odom fired a few words back at his coach.
All along, the Lakers have said they aren't concerned. Perhaps it's time to question whether they should be.
"To expect there to be anything that comes easy or for things that kind of fall in our favor, that's just not the way it is," Fisher said. "History doesn't say that. History says we won't make it to the Finals again for the fourth consecutive time. So, you know, you've got to have the adversities and the struggles. We just have to make sure we make sure we remain focused and positive in this locker room."
On his way out of the arena, Bynum did his part to calm any fears. He told his teammates and coaches the same thing he said to reporters: He thinks he'll be OK. The injury looked worse than it was.
Three months ago, Duncan hyperextended his left knee in a game against the Golden State Warriors, inspiring the same kind of horrific video and there-went-the-season paranoia in San Antonio which is now sweeping through Southern California. Duncan was back on the floor to start the second half. He finished the game with a triple-double.
So when Bynum says he'd play in Sacramento on Wednesday if it were Game 7 of the Finals, there's reason to believe him. Knowing how much they depend on him, the Lakers should still worry.