The Return of the Lakers' Big Men

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

What little symmetry that exists between the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets in their Western Conference Semifinal series can be summed up by a desperate call to pound the ball inside! That's what Rockets fans were screaming after Yao Ming managed only four field goal attempts in Houston's Game 2 loss. Once Yao's fractured foot left the Rockets with one of the smallest starting postseason lineups in modern NBA history in Game 4, the Lakers' inability to exploit their size advantage down low left their fans exasperated.

Though Lakers big man Pau Gasol scored 30 points on Sunday afternoon in Houston, 18 of them came in garbage time, and he was thrown off balance in the first half against Chuck Hayes, a defender six inches shorter than him. Meanwhile, a search party was dispatched for Andrew Bynum after the Lakers' 21-year-old center put up a goose egg in only 12 minutes of action.

Though the Lakers' problems Sunday were more tactical than physical, the thrashing at the hands of the Rockets prompted renewed questions about the Lakers' toughness -- fair or not. When such frustrations are aired, Gasol and Bynum are convenient targets. For critics, it isn't enough that Gasol is the best passing big man in the game, a shooter with a soft touch, or a proficient rebounder. When he's being outplayed in the post by Hayes, Gasol is a dreaded finesse player. Bynum might have all the physical gifts in the universe, but when he's scoring only 14 points in four games -- MCL tear in his right knee be damned -- he's callow and unprepared for the rigors of postseason basketball.

Tuesday night, Gasol and Bynum wrested control of the paint -- and the series -- from the Rockets, and it was a cooperative effort from the start. After making a strong cut to the hoop, Bynum was rewarded with the first bucket of the game at close range courtesy of a pretty interior pass from Gasol.

"The two of those big guys play well together and off each other," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "Pau looks for Andrew and helps get him going."

Bynum scored the Lakers' first six points en route to his most productive game of the playoffs. Five times on Tuesday night, Bynum unleashed his combination of size and athleticism to finish near the basket with authority. He scored 14 points (5-6 from the field) and grabbed rebounds in 20 minutes. More important, though, was Bynum's recognition that against an undersized Rockets front line, he's the big dog on the block.

"He looked energized," Lakers guard Kobe Bryant said. "He played with the kind of spirit we like to see from him."

If the first quarter marked Bynum's resurgence, then Gasol re-asserted his dominance in the second. Matched up against an inferior frontcourt defender in Brian Cook, Gasol immediately went to work. First, Gasol unfurled a gorgeous dribble move, spin, and left-handed hook, then followed it up on the next possession by beating Cook again down low, earning a trip to the line.

Gasol wasn't done. On possession number three, Gasol dropped a pass over Cook's head to a cutting Lamar Odom, earning his teammate a couple of free throws. Finally, Gasol ignited the Lakers' fast break with a nifty outlet pass to Sasha Vujacic. In a blink of an eye, an 11-point Lakers lead ballooned to 19, and the Rockets would never recover.

"We have guys who are big we can throw over the top to," Jackson said. "You don't have to use penetration off the dribble when you have that kind of size."

Gasol didn't put up gaudy, eye-popping numbers -- 16 points, 13 rebounds, three assists, and three blocks, but in 1:46 basketball to start the second quarter, he tipped the series the Lakers' way. He did it by heeding Jackson's call. The Lakers' versatile big man used his size and skill to exploit space in the frontcourt -- sometimes for himself, sometimes for teammates.

"We got our big men really deep position," Lakers forward Lamar Odom said. "We were able to do that early."

Odom, the third member of the Lakers frontcourt troika, was suffering from a back contusion. On Tuesday afternoon, it appeared as if he'd be a late scratch. But Odom went from dobutful to no doubt once he entered the game for Bynum with a little more than four minutes remaining in the first quarter. Though Odom attempted only three shots, his first -- a three-pointer in the closing minutes of the first period -- energized the Lakers after a rough-and-tumble first quarter.

With the game in hand in the fourth quarter, the Staples Center crowd called for Jackson to insert DJ Mbenga, the Lakers reserve center who hadn't yet seen postseason action. Jackson obliged. In Mbenga's six minutes of action, he grabbed two defensive rebounds -- the combined output of Rockets' big men Chuck Hayes and Carl Landry on the defensive glass.

It was that kind of night underneath for the Lakers' bigs.