Lakers Turn to Injured Andrew Bynum Against Dwight Howard and Orlando

By Michael Lee
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 3, 2009

LOS ANGELES, June 2 -- Following their brief and muted locker room celebration for reaching the NBA Finals last Friday, several members of the Los Angeles Lakers tossed their Western Conference championship T-shirts in their stalls and left them there, realizing that the ultimate goal had yet to be reached. But when center Andrew Bynum emerged from his shower, he was looking for a clean one to put back on.

That had something to do with an attendant misplacing the clothes he wore to the game, but Bynum was unruffled about putting on a new T-shirt and matching cap for postgame interviews and boarding the team bus. Unlike most of his teammates, Bynum didn't get to experience the crushing six-game loss to the Boston Celtics in the NBA Finals. He was relegated to being a spectator last June, after suffering a season-ending knee injury that begat the Pau Gasol trade, which begat the Lakers' impressive run through the Western Conference.

But when this season began, Bynum was viewed as a difference-maker for a Lakers championship run. It has been a burden that Bynum has carried, beginning with him signing a four-year, $58 million extension, continuing through some promising play, and being disrupted considerably when Kobe Bryant crashed into his right knee, tearing Bynum's medial collateral ligament, in a game against Memphis on Jan. 31. Bynum returned for the final four games of the season, averaging 17.3 points and 5.5 rebounds.

In the playoffs, the rush of returning has worn off and Bynum's play has ranged from okay to mediocre. He's averaging 6.3 points and 3.6 rebounds in just less than 17 minutes per game.

"It's gone kind of up and down," Bynum said of his postseason performance, as the Lakers prepare to host Game 1 of the NBA Finals against the Orlando Magic on Thursday. "I've played well some games, most games not. I think that just has a lot to do with the knee [not] being right and me not having the timing. During the playoffs is not the right time to get those back. This is crunch time. This is when every possession counts and I think that's why I've kind of been limited."

Coach Phil Jackson noted in the last round against Denver that Bynum's conditioning was not yet up to par, making him ineffective beyond short bursts. Bynum has looked upset at times, complained about minutes at others, but doesn't regret his decision to rush back.

"I had to. I had a possibility to come back and I did everything that I could do to come back," Bynum said. "For me, it was tough the way in which we lost to the Celtics -- easy layups, nobody stepping up, nobody doing any kind of fouling to try to stop it. I just think it's unfortunate this year, I was playing well, get hurt, come back. I can't do anything about it. My timing is not there and my explosiveness is not there. For me, just not being able to do what I do, that's the frustrating part. All I can do is move forward, wait and get time off so I can get 100 percent healed."

Now Bynum has an opportunity to put his uneven performance behind him. Utah didn't have Mehmet Okur in the first round against the Lakers, Yao Ming missed the last four games for Houston in the subsequent series and Nene got few touches for Denver in the conference finals. But Orlando is a different story altogether with center Dwight Howard, whom Bryant called "one the best, if not the best, big man in our game." Howard, 23, is averaging 21.7 points and 15.4 rebounds in the playoffs and Jackson said he didn't know who could guard him because, "I don't think since [Shaquille O'Neal] came in the league, that we've seen a player this dominant, power-wise. He is the first and foremost force that they have."

In two meetings this season, Howard averaged 21.5 points and 16 rebounds against Bynum, who averaged just 8.5 points and two rebounds.

"He's a tough cover," Bynum, 21, said. "But I'm going to be out here fighting. I'm looking forward to it. This is my first Finals appearance and I'm going to go all out. I'm playing against another young center, but to me, I'm not really looking at it like that. I'm here, I'm part of a team, but it's not about me. It's about what we need to do to win. We need to win a championship. We know what it feels like to lose it, how close we got, all the hard work that went in before."

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