- Arash Markazi, ESPNLosAngeles.com
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NEW ORLEANS -- As Andrew Bynum sat in front of his locker Friday night, unwrapping what seemed like a dozen ice packs surrounding his knees after the Los Angeles Lakers' Game 3 win over the New Orleans Hornets, an equipment manager asked him where his knee brace was.
"I don't know," Bynum said, sounding like a kid who was being asked about his retainer.
Bynum finally pointed to a corner of the room, where the bulky black contraption -- which has saved his season and the Lakers' championship hopes on more than one occasion -- rested against the wall.
Bynum doesn't much care for the 18 inches of metal and Velcro he must wear around his right knee when he plays. He will often throw it on the ground or against his locker, depending on how his night went. There probably have been many times when he wished he could simply throw it away and play like an unencumbered 23-year-old.
But his history of knee problems, which caused him to miss the 2008 playoffs and play limited minutes the past two postseasons, has made the device around his right knee a necessity.
The brace came into play again early in the third quarter Friday night, when Bynum fell after getting tangled up with Hornets forward Carl Landry. Bynum stayed on the floor for nearly a minute, forcing the Lakers to call a timeout and tend to him. But he rose soon after Lakers trainer Gary Vitti came to check on him, and he continued to play.
"It's the brace," Bynum said. "It's crazy."
It's crazy to think where Bynum and the Lakers would be without the brace, which has turned potential breaks and tears into mere bruises and tweaks.
"He's got that robot knee," Kobe Bryant recently said of Bynum's knee brace. "If that thing doesn't protect him, I don't know what will."
The past two seasons have resulted in championships for the Lakers, but Bynum averaged only 20.9 minutes per game during those runs as he dealt with pain in his right knee.
"I always wanted to be a part of it," Bynum said of the playoffs. "But this year I want to be more of an impact player."
He's playing as well as he has all season, averaging 29.0 relatively pain-free minutes in the playoffs. In the Lakers' Game 3 win over New Orleans, Bynum had 14 points and a game-high 11 rebounds. In Game 2 he had 17 points and another game-high 11 rebounds.
"I feel good," Bynum said. "This is the best start I've had in the postseason and I hope to continue to be healthy and playing aggressively."
Bynum's impact on the Lakers goes beyond the box score; his size on defense forces teams to adjust before they even think about driving into the paint, and his presence offensively allows the Lakers to get second-chance points. In Game 2 the Lakers held a 17-9 advantage on second-chance points, thanks to 14 offensive rebounds led by Bynum's five.
"It's not just that he's healthy and out there but it's what he's doing when he is out there," Lakers guard Derek Fisher said. "He's performing at an extremely high level and his basketball IQ and his understanding of how he can help us best has just shot through the roof.
"He deserves all the credit for putting the time and effort into continuing to improve and we're just happy he's on our side."
Bynum was so dominant in the first half (he was scoreless in the second half after his injury scare) that even Lakers coach Phil Jackson applauded Bynum after a putback in the second quarter. Jackson smiled while admitting that isn't something he does often.
"Drew had a great first half and in the second half he made us all nervous about how he went down," Jackson said. "But his first half was dominant, it was strong and he gave us an emphasis there with his inside game."
It's the kind of inside game the Lakers were always hoping for as they tended to Bynum's injured right knee in the playoffs, always wondering just how good they could be if one of their most dominant players was healthy enough to be, well, dominant.
"It's huge having him out there," Lakers guard Matt Barnes said. "When he's playing the way he is, it takes a lot of pressure off Pau [Gasol] and Kobe and they're able to play their game. We're not the same without him."
Arash Markazi is a columnist and writer for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
Andrew Bynum's knee brace should get early MVP nod in playoffs.