The Lakers and Mavericks did not play a terrific game Saturday night. Neither team shot better than 45 percent from the field, both were turnover-prone, neither could really get into their offensive flow, and both missed plenty of easy, open shots in spot-up situations. Kobe Bryant tried to do too much, again, this time on a bad ankle, and the Lakers very nearly coughed up a lead which should have been considerably more comfortable for most of the second half considering the slap-happy way the Mavericks were rushing things offensively.
But win they did, thanks to Steve Blake coming in and nailing huge crucial threes, some key plays from Ron Artest (remember him?), Pau Gasol doing damage in the post, and some excellent defensive work, particularly on the Mavericks at the rim.
This game can be used as a seminal moment for the Lakers, snapping back from a disappointing loss in Miami, proving that they still have the Mavs’ number after some regular season struggles, and showing they are still on track to reach the Finals. It can be used to illustrate that although Dallas is talented and experienced, and blessed with tremendous depth down low, it may not be enough thanks to the talent gap in the paint.
But really, if you want to know what this game meant? It’s “the moment” for Andrew Bynum. There have been flashes along the way. Signs. Huge games, bigger than this one. Moments where Bynum was the difference maker, the extra piece, the X-factor, other cliches. This wasn’t the biggest game of Bynum’s career, far from it. But the other games for him were proof of what he could do, what he was capable of, what was possible with him.
His performance against the Mavericks was a statement of what he is doing, where he is at, how he is playing.
In short, Bynum has finally, fully, arrived.
Bynum has always had the ability and the hype that goes with it. In 2008, a colleague I respect at the utmost levels stated that Bynum was already the 24th best player in the league. I scoffed and mocked him, not out of denial of what Bynum was capable of, but out of a question of whether he would ever really reach that level of production, consistency and performance. What Tom Ziller saw three years ago is what Bynum is doing now, dominating the landscape on a championship squad and making it to where the Lakers not only win, but win with relative comfort even on nights where Bryant is struggling, a scenario that would have seemed impossible two years ago. Three years ago I wanted to see the proof in the pudding. This season Bynum has served it with crow-flavored custard on top.
The reason for Bynum’s ascension? Simple. Health. Bynum has suffered through multiple knee injuries each season, even limping through the 2010 Finals with a small tear. The biggest criticism of Bynum has been his work ethic in regards to those knee injuries. Bynum has always missed benchmarks, return deadlines, and suffered recurrences of injuries. He never rushes back to work and instead constantly gives vague and delayed timelines for his return. But once on the floor, he’s a monster.
Bynum’s numbers aren’t out of this world. They’re the stuff that you’d expect from a top ten center, but what’s most notable is that he’s splitting minutes with Gasol and Lamar Odom as part of the longest and most talented team in the league. His offensive production rarely is featured as the center point for the Lakers with Gasol and Bryant circling the triangle. But he’s hyper efficient, posting the best PER of his career since the 2007-2008 season. And with Bryant struggling with age and injury, and the rest of the Lakers in regular season cruise control, Bynum has become something the Lakers can turn to for production and trust in. Quite simply, he’s just bigger than everyone else. More than once per game, Bynum will bail out a teammate’s bad shot by crashing the offensive glass for a vicious putback or tip-in with his freakishly long arms. There’s nothing you can do to guard Bynum. He’s not savvy like Al Horford or relentless like Joakim Noah or even freakishly athletic like Dwight Howard. He’s just bigger and longer than everyone else, and that is honestly the greatest strength of the Lakers at this point. They can simply bat shots back in by playing volleyball on the offensive glass well over the outstretched arms of those trying to box them out.
Bynum’s not the franchise center. Not yet, far from it. But he’s reached the point where he’s playing consistently, able to put in reliable minutes, giving the consistent effort necessary for Phil Jackson to instill more trust in him, and making life a nightmare for opponents. On a night where the Mavericks did a favorable job on both Bryant and Gasol (a combined 12-34 from the field), it still wasn’t enough. Because Bynum was there to be one step faster, a few inches bigger, a little bit better than the depth Dallas has brought in to contend with the champs. 22 points, 15 rebounds, and the thanks of a grateful championship contender.
It took longer than it should have, but finally the real new Western beast down low has arrived.
It’s Andrew Bynum, and he’s no longer a championship afterthought.