LOS ANGELES -- Andrew Bynum sat in front of his locker with a scowl instead of a smile.
He was brief with his answers, short with his time and limited with his patience.
As Bynum took a page out of Kobe Bryant’s playbook of succinct, pithy answers during the playoffs, several reporters had to double-check the final box score in their hands and make sure there wasn’t a misprint.
The Los Angeles Lakers had just beaten the Denver Nuggets, 104-100, to take a 2-0 series lead in their first round matchup and Bynum finished with 27 points, 9 rebounds and 2 blocked shots. Was there something missing?
“I left a lot on the court today,” Bynum said. “I worked way too hard before the game to let that happen. I could have had a perfect game.”
Bynum couldn’t define his perfect game, but it was certainly more than the stat line he produced Tuesday night. He wanted to get at least another rebound and at least a few more blocked shots. After getting a triple-double in Game 1, Bynum isn’t satisfied with anything less than a double-double now.
“I just left stats out there. That’s about it,” Bynum said. “I left a double-double out there, I left some block shots out there, I left points out there. I left a lot of things out there tonight.”
It would have been easy for Bynum to simply mail it in on Tuesday after the way he played last Sunday. It would have almost been expected of him by now.
Bynum’s inconsistency, immaturity and inability to follow coach’s directions have been well-documented this season. It would have been like him to follow his first triple-double in Game 1, which included a playoff record 10 blocked shots, with a lackluster effort in Game 2. After all, it was Bynum who followed up a 30-rebound performance in San Antonio last month with 50 rebounds in his last 6 games of the regular season, including sleep-walking so badly through a crucial match-up against Oklahoma City that he was benched in favor of Jordan Hill.
As frustrating as Bynum has been for the Lakers’ coaching staff and fans at times, you put up with his antics at every turn because he is one of the most gifted big men this city has ever seen and that puts him at a table that includes Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Shaquille O’Neal.
This isn’t to say Bynum is ready to eat at that table quite yet, but he is getting there and his career-best performance this season is proof that the past seven years have been more than just hype and unfulfilled potential.
While Lakers fans have been praying for Dwight Howard for the past two years, Bynum has quietly overtaken Howard as the best center in the league. It’s a stance that is certainly debatable now but may not be for much longer the way Bynum has been playing and continues to develop.
A smile crept over Bryant’s face when he heard the way Bynum reacted after his performance on Tuesday night. It was exactly the way Bryant would have reacted and the way he wants Bynum to react now.
“He expects greatness out of himself,” Bryant said. “He believes that he can have monster games on a consistent basis like he did the last game so it’s a great thing to hear.”
Bryant and Bynum have been teammates for the past seven seasons but it wasn’t until the NBA All-Star break in February that the two connected on a level beyond basketball. Bryant and Bynum were the two Lakers voted to the game in Orlando. Bryant had spent much of his previous 14 All-Star games with either Shaquille O’Neal or Pau Gasol and Bryant knew he would need to develop a connection with Bynum similar to what he had with O’Neal and Gasol on his previous championship runs if this season was to be anything more than a rebuilding year.
“I think the All-Star break was really when our bond cemented itself,” Bryant said. “Even though we were around so many of our other peers, it was just he and I. We were always around each other and we really didn’t care what the other guys were doing. It was really about us and being in constant communication, ‘What are you doing, let’s go out, let’s hang out, let’s grab some dinner.’ From that point on we’ve always had this chemistry.”
The chemistry Bryant and Bynum have was evident late in Tuesday’s game as Bryant drove into the paint with the Lakers holding a 95-91 lead over the Nuggets with 2:15 left in the game. It was a situation where in years past Bryant would have exploded toward the basket for the finish. This time, however, Bryant passed the ball off to Bynum, who finished with a slam dunk and a foul. The three-point play changed the momentum of the game and helped the Lakers seal the win.
“I had a lay-up,” Bryant said. “But you have to reward your big men.”
It’s a small reward that could pay big dividends for Bryant and the Lakers if Bynum continues to stay motivated this postseason.