Monday May 4th, 2009

LOS ANGELES -- Lakers players, for the most part, have fit snugly into consistent roles over the last two seasons. Kobe Bryant is the top scorer, the focal point of the team's offense. Pau Gasol is the secondary scorer, the Lakers' most consistent low-post presence who can be counted on to keep the offense moving in Bryant's absence. Lamar Odom (scoring, passing), Derek Fisher (three-point shooting, defense), Trevor Ariza (defense, hustle plays) and Sasha Vujacic (three-point shooting) have each carved out a nice niche for themselves, too.

And Andrew Bynum's role? At this point, after a quiet first-round performance against Utah on the heels of his return from another lengthy injury absence, that's to be determined.

That the 21-year-old Bynum struggled against the Jazz shouldn't have come as a complete surprise. With its sharpshooting big men, Utah creates difficulties for traditional centers by forcing them to defend out on the perimeter. After playing 51 minutes in the first two games, Bynum appeared for only 25 minutes in the last three. He averaged 5.0 points (on 39.1 percent shooting), 3.0 rebounds and a foul every five minutes in the series, losing his starting job to Odom after Game 3 as coach Phil Jackson opted for a more mobile front line.

Not that it mattered. The Lakers outclassed the eighth-seeded Jazz and didn't need the 7-foot, 285-pound Bynum to anchor the defense.

That will change in the Western Conference semifinals.

Bynum is expected to return to the starting lineup when the Lakers begin their second-round series against Yao Ming and the Rockets on Monday. The Lakers will count on Bynum to defend Yao, a post-up center who won't be drifting too far outside for jump shots. The more Bynum can handle the role in single coverage, the better the Lakers' perimeter defense will be against a Rockets team that has several three-point threats.

How much Bynum can offer is an open question, as the four-year veteran is only a few weeks into his comeback from a torn MCL in his right knee that cost him 32 games. (He returned for the final four games of the season, averaging 17.3 points and 5.5 rebounds.) In the first round, Bynum was limited during a practice because of knee soreness, and Lakers coaches have said he doesn't seem sure of himself playing with a bulky knee brace.

"I don't have a comment," Fisher, one of the most articulate players in the league, said when asked if Bynum looked comfortable on the floor. "He is where he is."

Asked to elaborate, the Lakers' starting point guard said: "I don't think he cared about the matchups. It was just about him physically being able to do the things he's capable of doing. That's all Andrew's concern is on, I would suspect. Andrew should be able to do more things as he continues to [work on] his timing and understand how he can play with some of the limitations he still has."

Some of Bynum's teammates say he will be fine, and predict big things from him the rest of the postseason.

"Andrew is unbelievable all around," Vujacic said. "In the next series, he is going to be amazing."

Said Gasol: "I expect him to contribute a lot more than he was able to [in the Utah] series. The matchups didn't help for him to be out there. He will be better."

The Lakers are keenly aware that as much as Bynum was a luxury against Utah, he is more of a necessity against Houston and in potential matchups with Denver and Cleveland down the road.

"He's going to find his place," Odom said. "I tell him all the time that he's going to dominate and he's going to help us get to where we want to be. ... He will get there."

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