LOS ANGELES – For two days, the Los Angeles Lakers went over their game plan. Phil Jackson put the Lakers through a lengthy play-and-pause video session, forcing them to watch and re-watch their mistakes from their opening loss of the postseason. They emerged vowing to play more aggressive and focused. If they were going to square their series with Chris Paul(notes) and these New Orleans Hornets, they'd have to do it with defense.
It sounded good, too, at least until the Lakers took the floor for Game 2. Then they watched Carl Landry(notes) quickly free himself for an open jump shot. Paul followed by dribbling into the lane and throwing in a floater. Marco Belinelli(notes) pulled up for another short shot.
GAME 2 HIGH SCORERS
In most Aprils, Andrew Bynum is getting an MRI.
What Bynum did next showed how far he's come and how far the Lakers can still go. Bynum bulled his way inside for a layup. Two possessions later, he did it again. By the end of the evening, he had collected 17 points, 11 rebounds, a pair of blocks and a series-tying 87-78 victory.
"We think he can play at an even higher level than this," Jackson said.
The Lakers haven't seen the ceiling for Bynum's potential because his past four seasons have been interrupted by significant injuries, often limiting – or, as was the case three seasons ago, completely erasing – his presence in the playoffs. Just last week, the Lakers looked in danger of again losing their 23-year-old center when he collapsed to the court with a hyperextended knee. For once, the test results came back positive.
Never have the Lakers had Bynum this healthy for the playoffs and never have they needed him more. Wednesday night was new territory for all of them. They beat the Hornets with defense, but they also beat them with Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol(notes) missing 15 of 20 shots and combining for just 19 points.
Kobe scored only 11, and there aren't many people who can remember the Lakers winning a playoff game like that. The last time Bryant had as few points, the Detroit Pistons clubbed the Lakers 88-68 in Game 3 of the 2004 NBA Finals. Had Bryant not spun past Trevor Ariza(notes) and elevated for an electrifying reverse dunk with less than four minutes left, he wouldn't have reached double-figures for the first time in the playoffs in nearly 11 years – a streak of 151 consecutive games that stands second all-time to Michael Jordan's 179.
Bryant's drop in scoring had as much to do with his desire to facilitate as it did any defense the Hornets played against him. He attempted just one shot in the first quarter, four total in the first half.
"I wanted to make sure the guys gain confidence in being aggressive," Kobe said.
The plan worked for everyone but its intended beneficiary. Lamar Odom validated his Sixth Man of the Year award with a 16-point performance and Ron Artest threw in another 15, solidifying him as L.A.'s most consistent player through the series' first two games. But Bryant and the Lakers came into Wednesday hoping to coax more production from Gasol, and after totaling eight points and six rebounds in Game 1, Gasol added … eight and five in Game 2.
The Lakers survived because their other big man helped anchor both ends of the floor. The officials called a loose game, allowing most of the action to go, and Bynum looked right at home in the big, bruising scrum. At 7 feet and nearly 290 pounds, he has learned just how much of a force he can become, particularly against an undersized opponent like the Hornets.
"I wanted to go out there and see if I could change things," he said.
The Lakers have worked long and hard to get Bynum to understand how he can impact a game with his defense and rebounding, and he's also somewhat accepted his limited role in the offense. He doesn't sweat his touches as much as Gasol because he knows the truth: Every night he's going to get fewer than he deserves.
"We're not very good at reading our advantages," Bynum said. "We're just not, unfortunately."
If Bynum wants the ball, he usually needs to get it himself. What he can control is his effort and defense. On Wednesday, he joined Bryant in helping set the tone. Kobe had persuaded Derek Fisher(notes) to let him body up Paul while Fish chased the Hornets' shooters. Kobe wasn't always successful – Paul memorably spun him around at the end of the first half before pulling up for a 3-pointer at the buzzer – but he did make Paul work more than he did in Game 1. The Lakers eventually turned Paul over to Artest and back to Fish while using Bynum and Gasol to help blitz him off the Hornets' pick-and-rolls.
Paul wasn't willing to give Kobe and the rest of the Lakers' bigger defenders much credit for his drop in production. "Whatever," he said. But Hornets coach Monty Williams conceded this much: "They were more physical than us from the jump."
The Lakers haven't regained their dominance of a month ago and they appear headed for a longer series with these Hornets than they expected. But they're at least on the board now. They also know this: When Bynum plays with a purpose, the game's easier for all of them.
"He did what he was supposed to," Kobe said of his young center. "He did what we expected."
For Bynum, there's no bigger compliment. For once, these Lakers are counting on him.