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Art Garcia

The health of Andrew Bynum and Robin Lopez could play a big factor in the Western Conference finals.
Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images

Bynum, Lopez hope to have healthy competition

Posted May 16 2010 10:59PM

LOS ANGELES -- Lakers center Andrew Bynum has a bum knee, keeping him out of most practices over the last week. Suns center Robin Lopez should be back in the starting lineup for Monday night's Game 1 of the Western Conference finals.

Is this a 14-foot swing in favor of the Suns?

Not necessarily.

The Finals fate of the Lakers or Suns likely won't rest on the health of their respective 22-year-old 7-footer. Each, though, plays a vital role in a series where matchups and tempo are at the forefront.

Lopez developed into the Suns' defensive anchor inside as the season wore on, but missed the last seven weeks with a bulging disk in his back. Though the second-year pro with good hands and a wide body is expected to start, conditioning and timing figure to be an issue.

Bynum's promising young career has been sabotaged by knee injuries. He missed the entire run to the Finals two years ago, and was slowed during the title march last year. Still, the Lakers wouldn't be the longest team in the league without Bynum joining the likes of Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom inside.

"As far as evening out, I don't know, but it obviously makes a difference," Lakers guard Derek Fisher said of Lopez coming back. "It changes Pau's role, it changes Lamar's role, it changes our bench rotation. It impacts a lot of things if Andrew is in a position where he can't play not necessarily a lot of minutes, but consistent minutes.

"It will change the series where, I guess, it would have more of an impact on us than them, but in our mind that doesn't mean we wouldn't find a way to be successful."

Bynum said the swelling in his injured right knee is getting "worse," despite not playing since Monday. Though he was ineffective in the last two games of the Utah sweep, Bynum is expected to start Monday. Lakers coach Phil Jackson plans to use Bynum in six-minute intervals to reduce the strain on his knee.

"He came through yesterday's practice quite well," Jackson said Sunday. "I thought he played well. We're hopeful that he's going to be at that level tomorrow. The minutes are parsed out in a way that doesn't put any real heavy time on it, like he's not going to play 12-14 minutes in a row."

Jackson's focus is understandably on Phoenix as a whole. The Lakers second unit simulated the Suns during scrimmaging Sunday, getting the ball up court quickly, taking shots early in the offense and fronting the post defensively.

"They're obviously a good running team, they pass the ball, they're a transition team," Gasol said. "They have a great point guard [Steve Nash] that pushes the ball really, really well and makes smart decisions. It'll put us in a position where we need to put a lot of focus and a lot of communication going back defensively and sprinting a lot."

Reserve center D.J. Mbenga was even firing up 3-pointers in the Channing Frye role, knocking down several and leading Jackson to quip that perhaps the little-used big man has been miscast. The Lakers also are preparing for Lopez, making sure to get work in against a center that plays near the basket.

"Obviously he's long," Gasol said of Lopez. "He's got good strength, good mobility. He's a good presence for them as far as defending, rebounding and just a big target also for Steve when he drives in the lane."

The return of Lopez is undoubtedly a boost for the Suns, who could use the help scaling those L.A. towers. Phoenix has held its own down low during the playoffs, outrebounding opponents by 28 through 10 games. That's actually better than the Lakers' plus-17 through 10 games.

And Phoenix isn't without big, mobile bodies. Unlike the Jazz -- Charles Barkley said Utah looked like a JV team inside going up against the defending champs -- the Suns deep frontcourt rotation includes Frye, Amar'e Stoudemire, Jarron Collins and Louis Amundson.

The Suns were better with Lopez in the lineup. He gives run-and-run Phoenix more of a traditional look by eating up space, protecting the rim, hitting the glass and being able to finish. But he also averaged less than 20 minutes per game and probably won't play as much as a hobbled Bynum.

The Lakers nevertheless believe they hold the ultimate trump card when it comes to the tall trees, even with the return of Lopez.

"It changes things for them as well," Fisher said. "One of their big guys now has to guard Lamar Odom on consistent basis. Now we make some adjustments. If Lopez and Stoudemire are out there, now one of them has to guard Pau and one has to guard Lamar. So we take advantage of them that way."

Art Garcia has covered the NBA since 1999. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter. The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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