Odom leaps back into the picture

LOS ANGELES – The night began like so many have for Lamar Odom(notes). His back ached. He had no rhythm, no shot, no … nothing. He drove hard to the rim and, suddenly, Chris Andersen(notes), the Denver Nuggets' frenetic center, was there, swallowing up the ball before it could leave Odom's hand.

The Los Angeles Lakers had come to expect this from Odom the past two weeks. They knew he was hurting. They also knew they couldn't count on him, even if they wouldn't admit it.

Odom knew this, too. So with the fourth quarter having now arrived, with the Lakers' season having reached a crossroads, he took a pass from Kobe Bryant(notes) and looked up to see Birdman Andersen again standing between him and the basket. Odom bounced hard off the court, past Andersen, cradling the ball just long enough to let everyone know the ferocity that awaited.

An instant later, Odom was punching the ball through the rim, crashing down on Andersen. He lingered for a moment, staring past his teammates at all those delirious fans, and roared back, a moment that seemed as cathartic as it was exuberant.

"Sometimes aggression just comes out," Odom said later, "and it came out with a scream after that dunk."

The Lakers yelled back. This was the Lamar Odom they had hoped to see, the Lamar Odom they need if they're going to close out the Nuggets and push their way toward a championship. Odom went on to total 19 points, 14 rebounds and four blocks in the 103-94 victory, which gave the Lakers a 3-2 advantage in the Western Conference finals. It was his best performance in a month, and the Lakers hope not his last.

"When he's aggressive, when he's getting after it, when he's active, we're a different ballclub," Bryant said.

The Lakers haven't seen that kind of game from Odom since they beat the Utah Jazz in the opening round of the playoffs. He hurt his back midway through their second-round series against the Houston Rockets and hasn't been the same since. Through the first four games of the conference finals, he averaged 7.5 points, eight rebounds and 4.3 fouls.

"We know his back's been killing him," Lakers forward Luke Walton(notes) said.

Odom has been reluctant to talk about the injury, admitting only that he looked better than he felt on Wednesday. He knew what was riding on this Game 5 – everything.

Odom's future with these Lakers is tied to their success, as well as his own play. He'll become a free agent this summer, and while he's said he wants to return, even at a somewhat reduced cost, the decision isn't entirely his. If the Lakers win the championship, their owner, Jerry Buss, would be far more inclined to keep the team together. If they lose? Giving Odom a contract that averages more than $10 million-plus a season could be a hefty price for a roster in need of some remodeling.

Re-signing Trevor Ariza(notes) will be a priority, win or lose. Odom, however, still has to prove he can help push these Lakers to a title. And with L.A. coming off a deflating defeat in Denver, he knew now was the time to provide a spark.

"I had to suck it up," Odom said. "Couldn't pick the paper up anymore. Didn't want to answer the phone. Couldn't watch ESPN. Couldn't watch TV for a little bit, right?

"I took it like a man. I just had to – this is my 10th season. … I haven't been playing well. My back's just to the wall. Put my focus cap on. Came out and just went after it."

That Odom needs to wear a focus cap is what makes him, at times, so frustrating. For all his talent and versatility – even in today's hybrid NBA, 6-foot-10 forwards with the ball-handling skills of a point guard are hard to find – he can float through games, if not also weeks and months.

Asked for a critique of Odom's performance during a regular-season game a few months ago, one Eastern Conference scout offered the harshest rebuke: "Is he playing?"

Odom also has as many fans among coaches and GMs as he does detractors. When focused and aggressive, he's a matchup terror. After Game 2 of this series, Nuggets coach George Karl proclaimed himself to be "a Lamar Odom guy."

"We think their two best playmakers in the game, on the court, are Odom and [Pau] Gasol," Karl said.

Odom and Gasol are also the two Lakers who shouldered the most blame for the team's collapse against the Boston Celtics in last season's NBA Finals.

"We have to get some players, if we're going to come back and repeat, to have that kind of aggressiveness we need," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said after their Game 6 loss in Boston.

"Some players" meant Odom and Gasol, and both were beginning to weather some heat for their continued soft play in this series. Prior to Wednesday, the Lakers had been unable to utilize their size advantage against the Nuggets. After Game 4, Gasol complained about not getting enough touches, but he also wasn't aggressive enough at seeking the ball.

Gasol made an impact on both ends of the floor in Game 5, contributing 14 points, 10 rebounds and five assists. Finally, the Lakers' big men played big. While LeBron James(notes) still looks for help in Cleveland, Bryant received more than enough support from his teammates Wednesday.

Credit for some of that goes to Bryant himself. Acting as the team's primary facilitator rather than scorer, he helped the ball move more freely, creating different angles for the Lakers to attack. Karl was left to whine about his own players' foul trouble, one day after Jackson was fined $25,000 for criticizing the officiating in Game 4.

"Phil is so much better at it than I am," Karl said, "so much more philosophical about the whistle and how it changed."

Karl knows the truth, however. What changed the most was Odom. He attacked like he hasn't all series. He threw in a 3-pointer to tie the game late in the third quarter. He drove for the vicious dunk over Andersen. ("He paid him back on that one," Walton said.) He swatted away Kenyon Martin's(notes) shot as the Nuggets made their final push.

"It seems like we get a little spark when I play well," Odom said, as if that hadn't been apparent before.

The Lakers will smile at that. For one night, at least, they saw the Lamar Odom they needed to see. They can only hope he stays a while.