What a difference a 7-foot center makes.
After sitting out the first four games of the season due to a suspension he earned during the Western Conference Semi-Finals against the Dallas Mavericks, Andrew Bynum returned to the court with a vengeance on Saturday afternoon.
The Denver Nuggets were the team on the wrong side of Bynum’s frustration, as the big man put up one of the best games of his career.
What made Bynum’s return so impressive wasn’t the numbers he put up as much as it was the overall impact he had on the game. Ever since the Lakers traded away Shaquille O’Neal back in 2005 the team has belonged to Kobe Bryant. When Bryant was on the floor he was the top offensive threat. Period.
On Saturday that wasn’t the case.
Even with Bryant in facilitator mode, Bynum stood head and shoulders above the rest. He showcased some impressive footwork, a delicate shooting touch, and most importantly, a desire to make a difference.
Bynum has earned a reputation during his time with the Lakers as one who occasionally lets basketball take a back seat to celebrity. It’s no surprise, really. What would you expect from a teenager given millions of dollars and the city of Los Angeles as his playground? But the Bynum that took the floor yesterday against the Nuggets was different than any Bynum we have seen before.
There is no question that Bynum has shown flashes of brilliance before. He’s had games where he’s been able to dominate the paint and help L.A. control the tempo of the game. But I don’t recall a game where he was the reason the team won the game.
Yesterday, when Bynum left the game the Nuggets took control. When he came back in the game, the Lakers reclaimed command. And, in a game that showcased Kobe Bryant failing multiple times late in the fourth quarter, Andrew Bynum put the team on his back and carried them to the finish line.
Talk about making an impact.
There was one sequence at the end of the fourth that epitomized the entire night for Bynum, the Lakers and the Nuggets. With the game tied up and a little over a minute remaining, Bynum blocked a layup attempt by Nene on the defensive end. Then, on the Lakers following offensive possession, Bynum took the entry pass and spun past the defender to give the Lakers a two point lead. A lead that they would never give back.
But like I mentioned above, Bynum’s impact was far beyond the numbers in the box score. He was the catalyst for the team as a whole. He had an energy level that the other players were forced to match. Instead of feeding off the momentum that his teammates built, Bynum was the one providing the momentum. He was yelling and pointing. He was bumping and bruising. He was even diving after loose balls to save a possession for the Lakers. On an afternoon where the Lakers had a near-impossible time building any sort of momentum, Andrew Bynum was the momentum.
Now, obviously it’s a little farfetched to say that the Lakers are expecting 29 points and 15 rebounds from Bynum every night. In fact, until he manages to stay on the court for an entire season without an extended absence due to an injury coaches and fans will all hold their breath every time he goes to the floor. But there’s no denying the impact he made on this team during his return.
So how much of a difference would he had made if he hadn’t been suspended for the first four games of the season? The Lakers lost their first game by a single point, when Derrick Rose got to the lane and made a game-winning layup. If Bynum’s in there to disrupt his shot that very well could have turned out different.
Look at the game against Sacramento, as well. DeMarcus Cousins punished Pau Gasol and Josh McRoberts with his physicality and overpowering strength. If Bynum’s on the floor the entire burden doesn’t fall on those two guys, who were clearly overmatched.
It’s foolish to say that the team would be 4-1 or 5-0 if Bynum had been on the court simply because he wasn’t, and they aren’t. But moving forward it’s obvious that he is becoming an integral part of this team. We spent the first six days of the season discussing how the Lakers, outside of Bryant, had no real offensive threats. With Bynum on the court the Lakers have another legitimate offensive threat that the defense has to respect.
But Bynum’s impact doesn’t stop there. Look at what he was able to do for Pau Gasol. Anyone who has followed the Lakers since the team acquired Gasol back in February of 2008 knows that he has played better at the power forward position than he has as a center. And those that watched the game yesterday would probably say that he played poorly. That he didn’t have an enormous impact on the game.
Pau Gasol scored 17 points and had five rebounds in the game. The only player on the team that scored more than he did?
So you see, Bynum’s ability to absorb attention frees up Gasol to do things like this. It’s not very easy to score a quiet 17 points, but Gasol will do that every night if Bynum is making a scene in the middle. Bynum’s ability to disrupt the opposing team by acting like a tornado under the basket forces the defense to shift their focus from Gasol and center it on him. And Pau Gasol benefits from this immensely.
Even though it was an ugly win for the Lakers, it’s a game they wouldn’t have won if Andrew Bynum wasn’t involved. The team shot 2-24 from three-point range, that’s 8.3 percent, yet won the game.
Because they grabbed 14 more rebounds than the Nuggets. Because they scored 14 more points in the paint than the Nuggets. Because they had Andrew Bynum.
It may be too soon to say Andrew Bynum is the savior, the future, or even an All-Star. But right now he’s exactly what the Lakers need.