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Playoffs will be proving ground for the Lakers and their young center


His Lakers are "not working hard enough" and trying "to get by without having to exert yourself enough to win games the right way," Phil Jackson says, even singling out that most passionate of all laborers, Kobe Bryant. The coach allows that maybe the favorites for the Western Conference title are measuring out the final games of the regular season in the name of pacing themselves. That's what he hopes, at least.

Tracking the Lakers' mind-set is fair game and very high on the watch list of playoff storylines. The Celtics delivered a hard two-hand shove to the chest last June by showing greater toughness, more heart and better teamwork, and that image gets erased only with a postseason response. Sixty-something victories from late October to mid-April is commendable, but real reputations are forged starting this week.

So good and still so much to prove.

Speaking of Andrew Bynum ...

Bynum is starting at center again after missing 32 games with a torn ligament in his right knee, bringing his own set of debate points: whether the Lakers can dare count on him, whether he will hold them back even if he does make it to the end, whether altering the starting lineup in the final full week of the regular season on behalf of a complementary player is ever a good idea. Small issues like that.

On the other hand, Bynum can be a difference-maker unlike most any other 21-year-old. He is a complementary player only because Bryant and Pau Gasol are present, a 7-footer who has made massive strides as payback to general manager Mitch Kupchak for picking him 10th in 2005 and then sticking with Bynum even as Bryant lobbied for the Lakers to "ship out" the prospect two years ago. Now, put the entire league in a draft pool and Dwight Howard is the only center younger than 25 who goes ahead of Bynum.

He is a prodigy and an undisputed centerpiece of the long-term plan in Los Angeles. In the moment, though, Bynum is the question mark who missed the final 46 games of the 2007-08 regular season and the entire playoffs with an injured left knee and just missed about 40 percent of this season with the injured right knee.

"There's no doubt about the fact that you add another factor that's as big as that, it's going to change the complexion," Jackson said. "Just the function of units, how they function together. It could be either great, it could be average, or it could be just a little deterrent."

The early results have been very encouraging: 16 points and seven rebounds in 21 minutes Thursday against the Nuggets and 13 and six in 31 minutes the next night at Portland, signaling the Lakers' belief that his conditioning is far along despite the prolonged absence. Then came the 18 points and five rebounds in 25 minutes Sunday against Memphis. In an important statement supported by the heavy minutes in a back-to-back so early in the return to action, the Lakers don't envision the opening games of the playoffs as a Bynum training run.

Leaving only the next two months to answer the real question: Are his health and dependability the difference between a championship and elimination?

"It's hard to say," said forward Lamar Odom, who returned to a reserve role with Bynum at center and Gasol reclaiming the job as starting power forward. "I won't put that much pressure on him. We feel like we can win any game that we play in, no matter who we're playing with, who we don't have. Of course, when we have him, we're a much deeper team. We're bigger and stronger."

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Said Jackson, when asked whether the Lakers can win without meaningful Bynum contributions: "We still feel capable. He gives us really an extra advantage, I think, a weapon that's really important to us simply because it shores up our rebounding and defensive prowess. That's really the task I've asked for him to provide for us this season."

A season that's now down to two months, maybe, with the reputation of the team and its young center on the line.

The reminder that Brown is one of the few coaching superstars is that the Bobcats have a franchise-record 35 victories with two games remaining and that Charlotte -- Charlotte! -- was in the East playoff race into the final full week of the regular season. The reminder that he's still Larry Brown in the other ways is how meaningful the Bobcats' rare progress is on a personal level.

Brown being Brown, he never tried to hide the importance of getting another chance in the wake of a messy breakup with the Pistons in 2005 followed by the smoldering wreckage of 2005-06 with the Knicks. L.B. was radioactive and he knew it, making it imperative to get back in to rescue his pedestal standing as one of the sharpest minds of the game. He couldn't even get interviews for some jobs.

Brown came close to taking over at Stanford before changing his mind because he didn't want to uproot his family. He got the Bobcats in the end, close enough for his wife and kids to continue to live in Philadelphia and still visit with ease, then went out on the Redemption Tour.

Charlotte went from 23rd in field-goal-percentage defense last season to 12th heading into Monday's games. Leading scorer Gerald Wallace became much more efficient while reducing his attempts per game but increasing his shooting percentage. He's averaged nearly the same amount of free throws as last season despite three fewer shots an outing, indicating Wallace had dialed down the perimeter game in favor of hard takes to the basket, a sound decision. The Bobcats had a major in-season trade -- Jason Richardson to Phoenix for Boris Diaw and Raja Bell -- made two other deals that affected their rotation and are playing rookie point guard D.J. Augustin about 26 minutes a game, and yet they still stuck close to the playoff pack.

A high-water mark of 35 wins isn't saying much for that franchise except that the Bobcats take the good news where they can find it. Brown is 68 and feeling energized despite past health issues, and he is back.

• So much for the West playoff cut line of 2007-08 as a freak of statistical nature. A season after the supposed rarity of a team (the Nuggets) getting in as the final qualifier while winning 50 games, the Mavericks or Jazz could be No. 8 this season with 49 victories. No. 9 will be further back, though. The Warriors were in the lottery last season at 48-34, but the best the Suns will do this time is 46-36.

• All Minnesota's Kevin Love may do after being snubbed by assistant coaches in voting for the rookie-sophomore game at All-Star weekend is finish in the top 10 in the league, not just among those at the kids' table, in rebounding and barely miss averaging a double-double. And that doesn't begin to factor in the immeasurable asset of an advanced court IQ. Love has had too many shots blocked, a predictable issue for a power forward lacking the athleticism to burst off the floor, but he's at nine rebounds a game in just 25.3 minutes, and only Orlando's Howard collects offensive boards at a higher rate. "He's one of the best rebounders I've seen come into our league in years," Timberwolves coach Kevin McHale said.

• Tyler Hansbrough is no second-round selection. Purely on talent, maybe. But GMs will love that he's a safe pick for late in the first round, owners will love that they'll know exactly where the guaranteed money is going rather than playing the risk-reward game with someone else in this economic climate, and coaches will love a guy who delivers maximum energy with a minimum of headaches. Psycho T plays in this league. Maybe not as anything more than an eighth man, but he stays for a while and becomes an immediate fan favorite most anywhere he lands.

• It's become an issue again because painful swelling in his right leg caused the Lakers' Jackson to miss a game just as he said health is the only obstacle to committing to 2009-10, but the plan of the moment is to be back. "I have every expectation to return," Jackson said. He holds an option for next season, a clause that means very little in reality because he could walk from a locked contract just the same. Bottom line: He wants to stay and the Lakers want him to stay.

• Golden State's Anthony Morrow is about the lead the league in three-point percentage. The same Anthony Morrow who went undrafted out of Georgia Tech. Who wasn't even listed among the 130 candidates in the NBA-issued draft guide. Who was anonymous to coach Don Nelson in summer league. Then: "I didn't know who he was," Nelson said. Now: "He does everything you hope they [rookies] would all do," Nelson said. "If I come back in the gym to do some night work at 10 o'clock, chances are he'll be there."