Wednesday, December 29, 2010 Updated: December 30, 3:49 AM ET
Lakers show some signs of life
By Dave McMenamin ESPNLosAngeles.com
NEW ORLEANS -- Basketball highlights are often littered with dunks and stuffs, but basketball games are rarely defined by slams and jams.
Yet the Los Angeles Lakers' 103-88 slump-busting win Wednesday in New Orleans was defined by three dunks by two players who swapped places in the starting lineup.
With the team reeling from three consecutive losses by a total of 50 points after their first seven losses of the season were only by a combined 36, the six points on two dunks from Andrew Bynum and one from Lamar Odom signified the change of the day.
Lamar Odom had never scored as many as 24 points off the bench until Wednesday night in New Orleans.
Perhaps too it was a change in the season that the Lakers had been sleepwalking through for too long.
A first-quarter stuff and a third-quarter alley-oop, both off passes from Kobe Bryant, was proof that Bynum has his bounce back. It's his athleticism as much as his size (7-foot, 285 pounds) that make him one of the bright young big men in the game.
For Bynum, who finished with season highs in points (18 on 8-for-12 shooting) and minutes (30), the dunks simply meant a sign of health.
The 23-year-old center had been tethered to the bench for the first six weeks of the season as he rehabbed his surgically repaired right knee. In his first seven games since returning to the lineup as a reserve, he averaged 7.3 points and 5.0 rebounds, while never playing more than 22 minutes.
"What told me something about [his improvement] was his ability to dunk the ball," Lakers coach Phil Jackson said. "He missed one, but he has not been finishing strong at the basket. Getting that pop and getting up and dunking the ball. It looked like he was ready to do it.
"A healthy Andrew Bynum is a major factor in the ballgame. His size is overwhelming in a lot of concerns."
For Odom, whose 24 points (on 10-for-15 shooting) were the most points he's ever scored coming off the bench, one amazing play stood out as a sign of joy -- his loop-around-the-back, finger-roll-off-the-glass, put-back slam midway through the fourth quarter.
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"Having fun," Odom said, buttoning up his purple shirt after the game because when they're on the road the Lakers wear purple jerseys. "You feel the game. Sometimes the game just comes to you and you start being instinctive or you just start to take over. It's funny that a play like that happens in New Orleans, because basketball is almost like jazz, right? Because if you make one move, you can take it to another move, but you never know which way it's going to end up."
Jackson wasn't jazzed by Odom's move, however.
"I didn't like it at all," Jackson said.
Odom let the coach's disapproval roll off his back without so much as a flinch.
"He's never impressed with what I do," Odom said.
It was the same way Odom barely batted an eye when he was told at a film session in the team hotel earlier in the day that his All-Star level campaign as a starter (15.6 points per game to go with 9.8 rebounds that is seventh-best in the league, and a 57.4 percent shooting clip that is second-best in the league) was being cut short to work Bynum back into the lineup.
"It makes no difference. I kind of understood my position and his position as far as the team is concerned with him coming off the surgery, what have you," Odom said. "It doesn't take long to adjust because this is what I expected. If I had been averaging 45 points a game, I still would be coming off the bench when Andrew came back. I knew that. I've known that."
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It was a selfless move by Odom, who has been criticized in the past for being too aloof to consistently help a team. Moving back to the bench without a fight could be considered another sign of disinterest, yet Bryant saw it as a skill.
"You have to be very talented to be able to do that -- to be able to come off the bench [and] to be able to start," Bryant said. "Not too many guys can do it. Manu [Ginobili] is a guy in San Antonio who's done it for them. You'd be hard-pressed to find another."
On Tuesday, Bryant called Ginobili one of his favorite players in the league, so you know how much that compliment means.
"He keeps everybody light," Bynum said of Odom. "That's the best thing about him. He's just a great guy. He's funny and really he understands the dynamic of the team. He understands when he's out there with the second unit, he takes control of the game and he's able to do whatever he wants to do."
Health and joy are two vital signs of life. The Lakers' season has a pulse again thanks to Odom and Bynum.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.