Andrew Bynum's injury reveals issues
Lakers hope center suffered only minor problem, but it shows team's vulnerability
LOS ANGELES -- Not again.
You had to be thinking it when you saw Andrew Bynum's right knee jiggle like someone was using his leg to do the rubber pencil trick in the second quarter Tuesday night against the Spurs.
News that the initial diagnosis of his injury is a hyperextended right knee and not a dislocated knee cap, ruptured ACL or torn MCL as was the case in previous knee injuries for Lakers center helped you from hyperventilating for the moment.
But with a MRI looming Wednesday to determine just how much disrepair the young man's old, creaky joint really is, the acronym for the magnetic resonance imaging scan takes on a whole other meaning: Might Really Indict.
As in the Lakers could be found guilty of not giving the final stretch of the regular season the proper attention it deserved and now are being punished for it.
The team won't know Bynum's status for sure until "they take pictures" -- Bynum's way of saying he'll have a MRI, something he's been through so many times he has a slang term for it.
But there was reason for optimism after the game. Maybe the Staples Center crowd knew everything was OK when it did the wave midway through the fourth quarter of the Lakers' 102-93 win over the Spurs.
"It was painful right when it happened, but it's not that bad right now," Bynum told reporters as he made his way out Staples Center without the aid of any crutches and encouragingly, without any visible limp. "I'll be alright."
Bynum will miss Wednesday's season finale in Sacramento and he's not the only one. The Lakers may very well need sparingly-used thirtysomethings Joe Smith and Theo Ratliff to play again with Steve Blake (chicken pox) and Matt Barnes (right knee) also not making the trip for what's sure to be a raucous crowd in what could be the last NBA game played in the state capital.
It is another "must win" game for L.A. if they are to secure the No. 2 seed in the West which was why they went out and won 17 of 18 games coming out of the All-Star break in the first place. They could still back into it if the Kings win and the Hornets manage to snap their two-game losing streak and finish their season with a win on the Mavericks' home court.
But the Lakers started backing into the playoffs a week ago and that's what got them into this predicament in the first place.
"It's taken on a kind of lazy thing," Lakers head coach Phil Jackson said before the game. "Just kind of going with the crest and when the crest wasn't reached last Sunday, kind of backing off of it."
And it wasn't just Jackson framing the Lakers' letdown as inevitable once it became apparent they weren't going to catch the Spurs for No. 1 in the West. The Lakers had explained away their five-game losing streak every which way coming into Tuesday's game. Kobe Bryant said the players were tired. Derek Fisher said every championship team he'd been on went through a puzzling period like this.
Lamar Odom evoked the basketball gods after the Utah loss, saying he wasn't surprised that Bryant's ultimate closer status was trumped by the overall bad energy of the team that night when he wasn't even able to attempt a game-winner on the final possession.
The one player who seemed legitimately upset with each mounting loss was Bynum.
And he's what made you believe that this late season swoon didn't matter. Here was Bynum, this 23-year-old dynamo in the middle finally ready to play the playoffs at full strength after feeling kind of like an extra in a movie that goes on to win best picture during L.A.'s last two title runs.
It was his time.
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With Bynum totally controlling games over the last couple months, it made all the Lakers' turnovers and porous transition defense seem like minor problems that needed to be fixed because you knew the foundation was solid.
When Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said before the game, "I've always maintained and I still do that L.A. is the team to beat in the West and I go into the playoffs believing the same thing," it seemed like a keen evaluation coming from a respected basketball mind.
Reading the same quote after the game with Bynum's status up in the air gives you more of an eerie feeling than reassuring one.
"I'm not going to comment, I'm just going to hope he's OK," Pop said after the game.
Bynum was the reason for the Lakers' transformation after the All-Star game and was dubbed the unofficial captain of the team's revamped defense as the Lakers held opposing offenses down while Bynum's impact numbers went up and up (12.7 rebounds and 2.4 blocks per game since the break).
Jackson optimistically said that Bynum might only end up missing a couple games, theorizing that his center could have escaped with only a bone bruise.
For the Lakers' sake, let's hope that's the case and Bynum's words to his teammates were a true evaluation of how he feels and not simply a pick-me-up.
"I think there's a level of excitement because the playoffs are around the corner and the opportunity to three-peat is upon us," was what Bryant said postgame, after all, his mind at least somewhat at ease looking forward rather than looking back at what might have been if Bynum hadn't stepped on DeJuan Blair's foot.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.