BOSTON – The window into the earnestness of Andrew Bynum(notes) could be found clutched within his hands and buried deep into his wallet. Outside his locker, the young Los Angeles Lakers center held the book “Drown” by Junot Diaz, a collection of short stories on the transformation of a young Dominican man to a life in the New Jersey where Bynum himself had been raised. This was the coach’s choice for Bynum, and a bookmark 20, 30 pages into it, suggested that Bynum had rapidly dug into it.
Bynum spoke of an uncluttered mind and how a man had come to the morning shootaround to talk to the Lakers about wrapping themselves around the Boston Celtics and the pursuit of a third straight championship. This was a sports psychologist named George Mumford, a longtime favorite of Lakers coach Phil Jackson.
“He talked about not letting outside things distract you,” Bynum said. “Training your mind to keep coming back to center.”
The words stayed with Bynum, but he couldn’t recall the man’s name. “Wait a minute,” Bynum said, and eventually he climbed to his feet and started digging through his wallet.
“Here it is,” Bynum said. “He’s a … uh … personal organizational development consultant.”
Never mind listening to Mumford’s message on the morning of a 92-86 victory over the Boston Celtics, do you think another of these Lakers took the time to grab the business card? It didn’t matter because Jackson had a target audience of one: His 23-year-old center, whose sound mind and body is the difference between the Lakers winning and losing a third straight NBA championship.
“It was one of those things where we said, ‘We’ve got a 1-7 record against power teams, this is important,’ ” Jackson said. “What is important is finding ourselves … having an identity.”
The ball found Bynum inside on Thursday night, and he delivered 16 points and nine rebounds. He protected the rim. He was fully engaged. Ultimately, this is the Lakers formula: They went inside to Bynum and Pau Gasol(notes) for offense throughout the game, and it was Kobe Bryant(notes) closing with big shots and big stops on defense over the final minutes.
For all the pointless speculation on something that won’t happen – the Lakers trading a young and gifted 7-foot center – this victory over the Celtics was a reminder of how vital that frontline of Bynum, Gasol and Lamar Odom(notes) means to this franchise. Nobody matches the power and precision of that frontline when it plays the way it did for most of Thursday night. Bynum is still impressionable, and the manufactured swirl surrounding his future clearly concerned Jackson.
Yet, this is part of life on the big stage of the Lakers. When someone had asked Bryant on Wednesday about his concern for how Bynum was handling all this, he simply said, “If he can’t handle this, how’s he going to handle a Game 7?”
Yet Bryant and the Lakers know the answer to that question because they watched Bynum drag an injured leg up and down the floor in Game 7 against the Celtics in last season’s NBA Finals. Bynum’s proven his worth, his toughness to them. They know he’s a keeper, and they know the championship chase is probably an empty proposition without him.
The Lakers had come to Boston Garden with so many questions and walked out with something answered for themselves. There are no must-wins in February, but they needed to beat the Celtics and needed to do it here. This was a little progress, a little validation, on a long season’s journey.
On his way out of the visiting locker room, out of Boston, Bryant walked past one of the Garden security guards. “See you in June, Kobe,” the man said.
Kobe Bryant smiled a knowing smile and nodded.