LOS ANGELES – Pau Gasol’s shot caromed off the rim, and, suddenly, Andrew Bynum was pushing past Tim Duncan, snatching the ball out of the air and forcibly flushing it back for an emphatic dunk, a show of aggression in the third quarter that brought a smile to the face of every member of the Los Angeles Lakers.
“When he plays that way,” Lakers guard Derek Fisher said, "it makes us almost impossible to beat."
The San Antonio Spurs have reason to wonder the same, as does the rest of the Western Conference. The Lakers took the court Sunday afternoon with a healthy roster for the first time in a month, with their young franchise center playing better than he has all season, and, well, isn’t this exactly what everyone feared?
The Lakers beat the Spurs 99-85, dismissing their closest challenger in the West so thoroughly that San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich didn’t even bother to summon either Duncan or Tony Parker from the bench in the fourth quarter. Kobe Bryant and Bynum also spent the game’s final 12 minutes relaxing on the sideline, the former having gone for 22 points, the latter totaling 15 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks in an efficient 24 minutes of work.
Afterward, Popovich stood outside the Spurs’ locker room, preparing to field questions when Gasol cut through the scrum of reporters and photographers on his way to an interview.
“The guy is going to kick our ass,” Popovich deadpanned, “and then come in the middle of my news conference?”
If their latest outing was any indication, the Lakers figure to turn the West race into their own joke. Bynum has now strung together three impressive performances, putting up 42 points and 15 boards against the Los Angeles Clippers, and 23 and 14 against the Washington Wizards in his previous two games. Taking advantage of DeAndre Jordan is one thing; holding his own against Duncan is another. Bynum made the future Hall of Famer work for his points, even throwing back one of his shots, and when Bynum sealed him off late in the third quarter to intercept a deflected pass, Duncan grabbed the Lakers center in frustration for his fourth foul. Duncan went to the bench, where he stayed for the rest of the game.
“He’s got a big body and defensively I thought he was effective,” Duncan said, “but I don’t know that he was much better than he ever was before.”
That’s not entirely true. By this time a year ago, Bynum was already on the Lakers’ inactive list, shelved because of an injury to his left knee that would ultimately cost him the remainder of the season. The Lakers compensated for Bynum’s absence by plucking Gasol off the Memphis Grizzlies’ roster, a giveaway deal that prompted Popovich to jokingly implore the NBA to form a “trade committee that can scratch all trades that make no sense.”
Memphis’ decision to send Gasol to the Lakers rankled more than a few other West general managers. When the trade was mentioned on Sunday’s TV broadcast, ABC analyst and former Houston Rockets coach Jeff Van Gundy used it as an opportunity to call the Grizzlies the worst organization in professional sports. Van Gundy sees what Popovich and his peers saw a year ago: As good as Gasol made the Lakers last season, wouldn’t they be that more dominant once he lined up next to Bynum?
The rest of the league only hoped that somehow Gasol and Bynum wouldn’t find a way to work together. After all, hadn’t it taken Duncan and David Robinson more than a full season to learn how to play off each other?
Lakers fans wondered, too, if Bynum would ever tap into his potential. In a recent three-game stretch against the Rockets, Spurs and Orlando Magic, he totaled seven rebounds. Asked after the Rockets game about Bynum’s sporadic rebounding, Lakers coach Phil Jackson cracked on his young center.
“Well,” Jackson said, “he got one.”
Jackson hasn’t hesitated to tweak Bynum publicly, and even he admits his center has handled the occasional criticism well. For all of Bynum’s growing pains, he doesn’t make many excuses.
“Andrew’s an enigmatic person,” Jackson said. “He doesn’t show a lot of emotion. But he does get to work.”
The Lakers think that Bynum has finally begun to get his legs back under him, which has improved his confidence. He’s also seeing the game better. When the Spurs double-teamed him on the opening possession of the second, he found Bryant for an open 3-pointer.
“That’s just the next stage of development,” Bryant said.
Added Bynum: “I still think I can play better.”
He can, and that should give the rest of the league pause. But what makes these Lakers so dominant isn’t what Bynum or Gasol or even Bryant do individually. It’s their collective strength. Jordan Farmar missed a month with a knee injury then scored 14 points in his first game back on Sunday. Trevor Ariza added 17 more off the bench. As the Spurs learned, the Lakers come at you in waves. They aren’t as battle-tested as the three-peat Lakers of Fisher, Robert Horry and Rick Fox were, but they do have something else.
“I don’t know if we were versatile as we are now,” Fisher said. “We can play a lot of different lineups, a lot of different guys in a lot of different spots. … It makes us a difficult team to try and figure out how to slow down on a consistent basis.”
That’s why neither Fisher nor Jackson nor Bryant saw the team’s one-point loss in San Antonio 11 days earlier as much reason to worry. Then, the Lakers were missing three of their rotation players.
Now? With his roster back at full strength, Jackson was asked if he had any specific concerns heading into the season’s second half.
“I really don’t,” he said.
The Spurs can’t say the same. If Bynum continues to play big, if he and his teammates stay healthy and hungry, then the entire Western Conference has reason to wonder. Aren’t these Lakers what everyone feared?