Posted Apr 29 2012 8:44PM
LOS ANGELES -- Both feet and ankles were drowning in a bucket of ice water, his game shorts were off, and his arms were folded across his chest as he reclined in a chair in front of his locker.
Andrew Bynum stayed like that for several minutes Sunday afternoon at Staples Center, looking relaxed and sounding equally mellow as he answered post-game questions in low tones. The historical performance, 10 blocks against the Nuggets to tie Hakeem Olajuwon and Mark Eaton for the most ever in the playoffs, left him seemingly unfazed. The first triple-double by a Laker in the postseason since Magic Johnson in the 1991 Finals -- Kobe Bryant didn't do it, in other words, and neither did Shaquille O'Neal or Pau Gasol -- practically had him yawning with excitement.
It was a bold contradiction and a bland moment. It was exactly what the Lakers wanted to see.
Bynum was grounded and focused throughout the Lakers' 103-88 win over the Nuggets and the media de-briefing that followed, making a statement with his game-high 13 rebounds and 10 points to go with the aforementioned blocks.
Two big statements, actually.
Bynum played and carried himself like a superstar, wanting the pressure of being expected to deliver in a series where the Lakers would have an obvious inside advantage, protecting the rim like few others in recent memory at any point of the season. It wasn't just the 10 blocks, more than anyone in team history in the playoffs. Many other Denver shots were altered or simply deterred from even being attempted, part of the Nuggets shooting 35.6 percent and once again failing to find the same up-tempo game against the Lakers compared to the rest of the league.
Mike Brown, though, topped it. The Lakers coach sat at the podium down the hall from where Bynum chilled in the locker room and installed Bynum as the front-and-center difference between a long playoff run or a disappointing end.
Having to rely on Bynum's maturity and sensibility is risk enough. It was just last season, after all, that he cheap-shotted J.J. Barea of the Mavericks in Game 4 of the 2011 loss in Dallas. Much more recently, he was benched for jacking up a foolish three-pointer at Golden State, reportedly followed by blowing off a meeting with general manager Mitch Kupchak, followed by a fine.
But there was Brown at the podium.
"He can control a game without shooting a single shot if he wanted to," the coach said. "He can literally control a game without shooting a shot. That's how good he is. He had 10 blocks, but I'd be curious to know how many he probably changed. He changed a gazillion shots in the paint, and that's what Denver is very good at, getting that ball in the paint, drive and finishing at the rim and getting a lot of layups. He was phenomenal tonight. And if he continues to play like he did, picking up a triple-double, being the type of monster he was tonight patrolling the paint, we'll be playing a long time."
With Bynum playing this way, the Lakers might win a gazillion games by the end of June.
"It's not pressure. It's just the truth," Bynum said. "If I come out and play defense, this team is a lot better. We step guys and we have playmakers on the offensive end in Kobe and in Pau that can draw a double-team and also make assists. I think today is a good showing that we're a versatile team and we're a deep team."
The Lakers have proven they can win championships without much help from Bynum, but that was with a younger Kobe Bryant and with the presence of Lamar Odom for better front-court depth, not to mention the presence of Trevor Ariza or Ron Artest at small forward. Neither was available Sunday, though only one was told he could not be at Staples Center.
Bynum has not merely developed into the top-tier center management had long envisioned, but he has done it in the exact season the Lakers need it most. There's just no way of knowing whether he can handle the responsibility of the postseason resting on his play and attitude more than ever. That's the part of Sunday that isn't so relaxing around here.
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