LOS ANGELES – The engagement of Andrew Bynum comes and goes, and that's why the best center in these NBA playoffs sat for hours on a bus inside of Arco Arena on Thursday night. Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol chatted on the Los Angeles Lakers bench, cheering on teammates and resting themselves for the start of the NBA playoffs. Bynum never joined them, sources said. He never left the bus. He strapped his earphones around his head, bobbing to beats. For hours, Bynum curled up into a seat, waiting for the Lakers to drive him back to the airport, back to the playoffs.
He had come into these playoffs the way he left them a year ago: All alone. The forever memory of that Lakers collapse was Bynum crushing little Jose Barea late in Game 4 of the Dallas Mavericks' sweep. There would come an ejection, embarrassment and a suspension, a monument to a lost season, a last dance for Phil Jackson.
And so, Bynum reached one final time into the air of the Staples Center on Sunday, reached toward the rafters and those 16 championship banners and sent one more Denver Nuggets shot careening back. He had been historically dominant on Sunday, punctuating the first triple-double of his career with his 10th block late in the Lakers' 103-88 Game 1 victory.
No one missed Metta World Peace. No one talked about Kobe Bryant's 31 points. Pau Gasol had 13 points, eight rebounds and eight assists, and it still felt so much smaller when Bynum went for 10 points, 13 rebounds and 10 blocked shots. Only Hakeem Olajuwon and Mark Eaton had ever turned back so many shots in a playoff game.
For all the blocks, there were so many more shots that changed course, that were disrupted. Nuggets coach George Karl called it a "nice illegal defense," but even the referees can't bail out his team should Bynum be so inclined to destroy it.
"If he continues to play like he did, we'll be playing a long time," Lakers coach Mike Brown said. "He can control a game without shooting a single shot if he wanted to."
Well, Andrew Bynum doesn't want to do that. He wants the ball, wants to score and wants to dominate everywhere on the floor. Only, the ball is spread through the genius offensive talents of Bryant and Gasol, and that's something that Bynum still struggles to accept. Sometimes, he holds the defense and rebounding hostage on these Lakers: Give me some shots, and I'll give you what you need.
When someone asked how a record 10 blocked shots compares to, say, a 30-point performance, Bynum knew the political response everyone wanted to hear. Well, he wasn't giving it. He's supposed to say that blocking those shots is the most important thing in the world to him, because that's what the Lakers mostly need out of him. Yet, Bynum wants to be a superstar, and superstars score the ball. This was his best, most complete offensive season with nearly 19 points a game, but he can do more, and everyone knows it.
"Obviously, I want to score points, but that's not always available to me," Bynum said. The blocked shots? "The next best thing," he called them.
Bynum is so young, 24 years old, and yet this is his seventh season in the NBA. Habits form. Development slows. Slowly, surely, you become what you will always be: Sometimes brilliant, sometimes detached and forever an enigma. At the trade deadline in February, the Lakers were willing to part with Bynum for Orlando center Dwight Howard. The Lakers wanted an assurance that Howard would sign a contract extension, and he wouldn't give it, sources in the talks said.
Looking back, the irony is unmistakable now. Howard was the sure thing, the indestructible force who never got injured, never missed games. Bynum was the gamble, with major parts of three seasons lost to knee injuries. Now, Howard is rehabilitating his back after surgery and struggling to sit up straight in a chair. He'll be back again, but he would've gone down with the Lakers, just like he did with the Magic.
Once the trade deadline passed in February, perhaps it was no coincidence that Bynum's petulance surfaced more and more. When Brown punished him for shooting 3-pointers, Bynum disconnected from huddles, slid down the bench and became isolated. He's always been private, always been an independent thinker.
No one should ever underestimate Bynum. He didn't go to college, but had he enrolled at Connecticut, he would've majored in engineering. He loves to take machinery apart, study how it works and put it back together again. He's a voracious reader. He's curious of a world far beyond basketball, but there's a petulance about him borne out of so many gifted young prodigies: What he's willing to give versus what he's willing to get.
Yes, the engagement of Andrew Bynum comes and goes. Bynum gathered 30 rebounds in a victory over the San Antonio Spurs and then got benched in an immense game with Oklahoma City because Jordan Hill was playing harder than him. In a lot of ways, Jackson knew how to reach Bynum, but Bynum faded in and out with him, too. Now, Brown's had to forge partnerships with Bryant and Gasol. Brown's clashed with World Peace. And for the progress made this season, Bynum's still something of a mystery to Brown.
As time passes, Brown has learned to carefully choose his battles with Bynum. That's what Bryant was trying to tell Brown, it seemed, when the coach was so obsessed with Bynum tossing an occasional 3-pointer toward the rim.
When the regular season ended Thursday in Sacramento, no one made too big of a deal over Bynum sitting on the bus for a few hours, listening to his music, letting a forgettable game go on without his presence. He likes the peace and quiet, so they left him alone. The Lakers needed Bynum in Game 1 on Sunday, and he was there for them. That big, strong body, those long arms, that spectacular set of skills change everything for the Lakers. The Lakers need him in these playoffs. They need him on a championship chase. He knows it, too. Oh, how he knows it.
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