- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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ORLANDO -- For the Los Angeles Lakers, this seven-game road trip is as big as it gets.
The 13-day journey leading up to the All-Star break was born out of necessity, as NBA schedule-makers had to send the Lakers on the road while Staples Center was being used to stage the Grammys.
But their longest trip of the season has fast become season-defining.
And there has been no player the trip has been bigger for than big man Andrew Bynum.
One game before the trip started, Bynum missed his first game because of injury (sore left knee) since returning to the lineup Dec. 14 after offseason right knee surgery. He still hadn't fully recovered from the bone bruise on his left knee when the Lakers left for New Orleans and four games into the trip, it still isn't 100 percent.
But the trip started mildly enough for the 7-footer as he averaged 11.5 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.5 blocks in the team's first two wins in New Orleans and Memphis.
After beating the Grizzlies, the Lakers had two days off in Boston before facing the Celtics, but it turned out to be anything but a rest for Bynum after news broke that his name had popped up in trade discussions involving Denver's Carmelo Anthony.
Suddenly Bynum wasn't just fighting to win basketball games, but considering a future where he wouldn't be a member of the franchise that drafted him.
"I think he had the right attitude toward it," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said Friday. "He thought it was hearsay. I confirmed that I felt he was probably right about it."
Even if the trade talk was nothing more than a rumor, the spotlight shifted to Bynum against the Celtics. There were plenty of other storylines, from the Finals rematch, to the Lakers looking to avenge a loss to Boston 11 days previous to Ray Allen looking to pass Reggie Miller's all-time NBA mark for 3-pointers.
But in the eye of the storm, Bynum delivered, finishing with 16 points and nine rebounds, playing a season-high 34 minutes on his banged up knee and helping the Lakers outrebound the Celtics by 11.
He followed it up Friday with 12 points, nine rebounds and a block against the Knicks while shooting 5-for-8 from the field, the 12th straight game he shot 50 percent or better from the field.
"I've got to continue to bring the energy and hopefully opportunities will continue to come," Bynum told reporters.
The Lakers are 4-0 on the trip and Sunday presents another challenge not just for the Lakers with the fifth-best team in the East in the Orlando Magic, but for Bynum as well.
He'll be battling in the paint with Dwight Howard. While the 23-year old Bynum often hears the opinion he could be the best center in the game if he ever stays healthy, the 25-year old Howard currently holds that title without any stipulations.
Howard is averaging 22.5 points, 13.9 rebounds and 2.1 blocks -- roughly double Bynum's 11.5, 7.5 and 1.7 -- and is line to win his third straight Defensive Player of the Year award.
If it goes anything like the rest of the trip, Bynum could have a surprise in store for Howard.
Back to back success
When the regular-season schedule came out and the Lakers were only playing 15 sets of back-to-backs instead of the 20 they played a year ago, it appeared someone was doing a favor for the two-time defending champs.
After the success the Lakers have had through their first 10 back-to-backs so far this season, maybe they could have used a few more.
L.A. is 38-16 overall (a .704 winning percentage) but the team is actually better in back-to-backs, going 16-4 (.800) through its first 10. They are 7-3 on the first night and 9-1 on the second night.
Orlando marks the start of another back-to-back Sunday with the conclusion coming Monday in Charlotte.
Playing the second night with tired legs would seem to spell trouble for a team with six players in their regular nine-man rotation over the age of 30, but that hasn't been the case.
"We've been fortunate," Jackson said. "Maybe we've had a lesser opponent on the second night of our back-to-backs, I haven't really kept track. The other thing is that I really do try to limit minutes on back-to-back nights. If we can get away with playing guys shorter minutes on the first end of it, I try to do that."
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.
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