LOS ANGELES -- With little more than seven minutes remaining in the third quarter at Staples Center on Sunday afternoon, Nuggets power forward Kenneth Faried drove around the right flank of Pau Gasol and threw up a running scoop shot. Andrew Bynum, stationed under the basket, leapt at Faried and swatted the shot into the last seat on the first row along the baseline. As Bynum bounced gleefully on the balls of his feet, Gasol patted him on the head. Kobe Bryant pumped a fist. The bench erupted. The crowd rose.
It was just one block, on a day when Bynum matched a NBA playoff record with 10 of them, but it was a statement play in what Bynum termed a "statement game." The Lakers left Staples crowing about their championship potential, not simply because they drubbed Denver 103-88 in Game 1, but because of the way they did it and the crucial role Bynum re-assumed.
Fourteen months ago, in a meeting with former coach Phil Jackson, Bynum asked to become the Lakers' guard dog. The staff changed their defense to keep him near the basket and take advantage of his shot-blocking chops. Bynum started to protect the rim like it was one of his prized Ferraris. Mike Brown replaced Jackson as coach last summer, and changed elements of the defense again, but the scheme still hinged on Bynum's activity in the key. In the first half of the season, the Lakers allowed more than 100 points only four times, and Bynum made his first All-Star team.
But as Bynum became a focal point of the Lakers' offense, the second option behind Bryant, he let his defensive effort lapse. After pulling down 30 rebounds against San Antonio, he only cracked double-digits in rebounds once. Last week against Oklahoma City, he was so slow against pick-and-rolls that Brown benched him for the entire fourth quarter and two overtimes in favor of reserve Jordan Hill. In the second half of the season, the Lakers allowed more than 100 points 19 times.
Over the past week, Bynum watched tape of his pick-and-roll defense, and noticed what was missing. "Defense is about heart," he said. "You can stop anybody if you move your feet." Brown, who has clashed with Bynum repeatedly this season, still acknowledged Sunday morning that he did not know what to expect from the enigmatic 24-year-old. At 7-feet, 285 pounds, Bynum can dominate when inspired, and pout on the bench when not. Whether Brown provided the motivation, or the playoffs did it, Bynum re-engaged on the end of the court where the Lakers need him most.
Denver, the highest-scoring team in the NBA at 104.1 points per game, finished with 88. The Nuggets' starting center, Kosta Koufos, didn't make a basket. Their backup center, JaVale McGee, went 0-for-6. Denver's leading scorer, 5-11 point guard Ty Lawson, was able to break down the Lakers' defense, but was hopeless trying to finish over Bynum. He went 3-of-11. Bynum, on the other hand, responded to the Nuggets' relentless double-teams with a rare breed of triple-double: 13 rebounds, 10 blocks and only 10 points. Denver head coach George Karl said he also could have been whistled for 30 defensive three-second violations.
"He can control a game without a shooting a single shot if he wanted to," Brown said. "He changed a gazillion shots in the paint." At times this season, Brown has talked about Bynum like a parent about a petulant child. On Sunday, he referred to him as "a beast" and "a monster." He compared him to Hall-of-Fame offensive tackles Anthony Munoz and Willie Roaf for making an impact that goes unseen in box scores. "Obviously, I want to score more points," Bynum said. "But sometimes that's not what's available to you so you have to do the next best thing."
The Lakers miss the suspended Metta World Peace, but Bynum is their defensive linchpin. Though they remain susceptible to driving point guards and slashing wings, so long as Bynum makes proper rotations and attacks shots, he can mask shortcomings and eliminate mistakes. The Lakers and their fans might have overreacted to the third-quarter block on Faried, but they were reminding Bynum of the damage he can inflict on D. "If he continues to play like he did," Brown said, "we'll be playing a long time."
"We're a championship-caliber team," Bryant said.
Bynum's development into one of the NBA's top centers has been the highlight of the Lakers' season. Once a 17-year-old project with no post moves and bad knees, he is now second only to Dwight Howard, and gaining fast.
But his path to the elite has been circuitous, transforming the Lakers into contenders one day and afterthoughts the next. "He was a huge difference-maker today," Gasol said. "We want to encourage him to have that energy and desire on a consistent basis."
Bynum's consistency, the key to the Lakers' season, is even more critical to their postseason. Game 1 guarantees them nothing. It only gives them a blueprint.