Can Bynum slow down Howard?
These NBA Finals feel like a missed opportunity to witness a titanic individual matchup. No, not the ones the puppets prophesied; a good old-fashioned center showdown, the kind Wilt and Russell used to give us.
If Lakers center Andrew Bynum could have just lived up to expectations, his upcoming matchup with Orlando's Dwight Howard would be the talk of the NBA this week. It could have been the best center duel in the NBA Finals since the mid-1990s, when Hakeem Olajuwon took on Patrick Ewing, then Shaquille O'Neal. Michael Wilbon would have flown out to L.A. for a sit-down interview with Bynum to go with Rachel Nichols' Sunday Convo with Dwight.
It would have been a nice parallel, the two young centers (Howard's 23, Bynum is 21) taken a year apart in the draft, both competing in their first NBA Finals. Only it's pretty hard to compare a guy whose defining moment of the spring was putting the Magic on his back in the conference championship-clinching game to a guy whose defining moment of the spring was putting a Playmate on his shoulders at a pajama party.
Howard's averaging 21.7 points and a league-leading 15.4 rebounds in the playoffs. The only noteworthy thing about Bynum's playoff numbers is they make a palindrome: 6.3 points, 3.6 rebounds.
Bynum's statistics could easily be explained by the fact he missed 32 games after injuring his right knee in January. Except he teased us with averages of 17.3 and 5.5 rebounds when he came back for the last four games of the regular season, numbers that were within a couple of rebounds of his January statistics when he hit the best stride of his career, including a 42-point, 15-rebound game against the Clippers.
The playoff drop-off has been explained away by the adrenaline's expiring, the game's intensity picking up (and the absence of the Clippers). Bynum never got comfortable wearing the bulky knee brace. His awkward mobility hurt his confidence. That, in turn, gave Phil Jackson less reason to use him.
"I'm not playing my best basketball," Bynum conceded. "I'm a little bit limited here."
Them's not exactly fighting words heading into the Finals. As a result, all the center hype is directed toward Orlando, such as Jackson's observation that "I don't know who can guard the big kid if he's as physical as he is. Howard's just a real powerhouse down there inside."
There's one thing the centers have in common. Each called out his coach in these playoffs.
Howard's issue was touches in Game 5 of the conference semis against the Celtics. "Offensively I have to get the ball," he said afterward. "I don't think you are going to win a lot of games when your post player only gets 10 shots. It's tough to get yourself going and get a lot of touches without a lot of shots."
Bynum wanted more minutes. He's been in and out of the starting lineup, has played more than half the game only twice in the playoffs and saw as little as seven minutes of action in back-to-back games against Utah in the opening round. He's been visibly upset, and after Jackson suggested that Bynum was limited to short stretches on the court because his conditioning wasn't back yet, Bynum told Jack Ramsay in an ESPN Radio interview, "I think that's just his excuse for not wanting to play me."
In the afterglow of winning the Western Conference finals Bynum sounded more conciliatory, saying, "Obviously, it was frustration a little bit. You're not playing your best ball. Sometimes you have a good game and you get yanked out and you think, 'Ah, it could have been better.' You can't let that stop you from playing team basketball."
Jackson could have another reason to sit Bynum and start Lamar Odom in the Finals: Orlando's unorthodox style and lineup forces Pau Gasol to guard Rashard Lewis out in 3-point land if Bynum starts. So far Jackson has indicated he'll stick with the big-man combo of Bynum and Gasol and try to dictate the matchup issues at the other end of the court.
"I think we'll be all right with what we do," Jackson said. "Our big lineup is going to create a problem for them."
That's still a theory based on Bynum's potential, as is the four-year, $58 million contract extension he signed early this season. The Lakers couldn't use their double 7-footers to dominate Utah without Mehmet Okur or Houston without Yao Ming. Now they'll face Howard and his more-than-capable backup Marcin Gortat.
From the first day of training camp Bynum was portrayed as the difference-maker. He missed the playoffs last year with another knee injury, and could only watch as the Celtics pushed around the Lakers in the Finals. He vowed he wouldn't let that happen the next time.
Only there won't be a next time after Orlando took out the Celtics in the second round. And even the last time wasn't quite the way we thought of it. We became Simple Storyline Suckers, believing that one player's absence or presence could explain everything.
"Boston didn't beat us by posting people up," Derek Fisher said. "Kevin Garnett made shots; Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, they made shots, rather than just giving the ball to anybody and letting them go to work in the middle."
Looking ahead to Orlando, Fisher said, "Our ability to rebound the basketball could really be the difference in this series."
Based on the last two games of the Western Conference finals, when Bynum grabbed a total of three rebounds, someone else will have to handle that department.
You know what Bynum showed during Game 6 in Denver? A willingness to foul. And seriously, that's going to be a factor in the Finals, when the Lakers will try to make Howard beat them 15 feet from the basket instead of a foot above the rim. Bynum gave hard fouls to Carmelo Anthony and Kenyon Martin on early drives, setting a no-nonsense tone even if it meant he had to head to the bench.
"You've got to play defense," Bynum said afterward. "You can't allow people just to walk down the lane and dunk. It creates too much energy for the other team."
The Lakers would be fine if Bynum adopted that mindset. They'll throw the ball to Gasol in the post or Bryant on the wing on offense. They want Bynum to be able to hold his own against Howard on defense, because they sure don't want to leave any of Orlando's 3-point shooters to come double-team Howard.
"Offense it's more about you, because you've got to put the ball in the basket," Bynum said. "But you can't stop playing defense. You can't stop trying to block shots and changing the momentum of the game."
We've seen Trevor Ariza become a hero by stealing inbounds passes. That's how huge the details become in the playoffs. That's the new model for Bynum. They've advanced to this stage practically without him. If he gives the Lakers even half of what Howard gives the Magic it will be a minor victory for Los Angeles. Bynum seemed energized by the Western Conference finals victory, a reminder that winning erases frustrations. Dressed in conference championship gear, he was drenched in team spirit.
"I've got to play up to the player that I'm able to be," Bynum said. "I'm ready to go do that. Seriously."
A big man doing little things, with downsized hype.