BOSTON – As the NBA's longest winning streak of the season unraveled in the Staples Center, Doc Rivers seethed as his players missed layup upon layup. The Boston Celtics pushed past those Los Angeles Lakers guards, reached the rim and yet over and over the surest of shooters betrayed soft touches. To the naked eye, the Celtics appeared wound too tightly.
And hours later, when Rivers would watch tape of the game, the Celtics coach squinted closer and understood that these weren't nerves. "It was because of that big [expletive] running around," Rivers marveled Sunday.
It was Bynum. Andrew Bynum. Yes, he changes everything. The Celtics had it far easier in the NBA Finals with so little muscle and might protecting the rim, but the Lakers had become basketball's most complete team. Yes, Bynum changed everything for them.
"He makes you change the shot," Rivers said. "We had three or four of them where we double-clutched for no reason – other than the fact that in the left of your eye he was coming. Size makes you miss layups."
Without Bynum, the Lakers were still the best team in the Western Conference a season ago. With him now, they're a nightmare for everyone in the NBA. For a second straight season, Bynum, clutching a knee, crumpled to the court. It happened in Memphis on Saturday when Kobe Bryant crashed into the 7-footer's right knee.
As the MRI revealed on Monday, Bynum tore his medial collateral ligament, and will be lost for eight to 12 weeks. The Lakers are back to where they were a year ago: Still the team to beat in the West, but no longer impenetrable.
It must be Groundhog Day.
So now, the Lakers are on a telltale Eastern Conference trip that starts with New York and Toronto and punctuates with Boston and Cleveland on Thursday and Sunday. Bynum, 21, had progressively become a bigger and better offensive star – averaging 26.2 points, 13.8 rebounds and 3.2 blocks in his past five games – and this trip was a chance to see whether the Lakers at full force could beat the Celtics and Cavaliers on the road, too.
Now, it turns into a chance for the East to get a good, long look at the way they can physically pound the Lakers in the Finals. Already, Orlando traveled to Los Angeles and did it there.
"We were looking forward to playing the [Lakers] team we played on Christmas Day," Celtics center Kendrick Perkins said. "He's starting to become one of the elite centers in the league. It's a great challenge for me, a great challenge for all our guys."
Steve Nash had just been talking about this at his locker recently: The power has shifted in the NBA. "Three of the best four teams in the league are in the East," Nash said. He's talking about the Celtics, Cavaliers and Magic.
Western contenders are desperately trying to acquire bigger players to match the Lakers' frontline of Bynum and Pau Gasol. The Spurs would love to figure out a way to land Detroit's Rasheed Wallace or Sacramento's Brad Miller, but they just don't have the assets to make a deal. Nevertheless, the urgency for Western teams to get bigger at all costs diminishes now. With Bynum, the Lakers aren't losing to anyone in the West. Without him, one GM said, "They're still the best team in the West, but we can play them differently."
Bynum had been frightening teams – even showing a ferocity on defense that had always been missing of his game. Last week, he crushed Charlotte's Gerald Wallace so brutally on a drive to a basket, he sent Wallace to the hospital with a broken rib and partially collapsed lung.
Back in the East, the Cavaliers and Celtics love the prospects of getting physical. The Cavaliers are still undefeated at home. The Celtics are on an 11-game winning streak. There's nothing bigger in basketball than Celtics-Lakers and Thursday night gets diminished now. Bynum goes down and no one will get to see him in the middle against Cleveland and Boston, but they know the drill: Bynum is forever looming in the corner of the league's eye, that "what-if" young center of his time.
Once again, the balance of power changes with Bynum crumpling to the court.
Yes, it must be Groundhog Day.