'Biggest game of my career'

LOS ANGELES -- Lakers center Andrew Bynum stood on the edge of the court at Staples Center after practice on Wednesday, still noticeably limping with a torn meniscus in his right knee. Wearing shorts, a pair of Uggs slippers and holding his iPad under his left arm, he took a look at the purple-and-gold floor below him and the championship banners above him and smiled.

"This is Game 113," Bynum said of Thursday's Game 7 against the Boston Celtics. "All of the other games didn't matter. They were all for fun up until this point. This is the biggest game of my career."

This is why Bynum has continued to limp, hobble and stagger his way through many of those 113 games and more specifically every game of this postseason on one leg. This is why Bynum receives about two hours of treatment on his right knee daily in the hopes that he will be able play about 30 minutes come game day. This is why Bynum, 22, may be sacrificing a more productive future by literally draining (on multiple occasions) his right knee in order to win a championship this season.

"The reason I don't want to miss anything is because I missed the Finals two years ago and we lost and when I played we won and I want to keep that collective energy as a whole there," Bynum said. "I want to go out there and win as a team. If we do that we're a part of history and everyone's names go down in history too."

While the legacy of many of the players in Thursday's game rests on the result, the one player who has grown the most and earned the most respect from his teammates over the course of the playoffs is Bynum. Regardless of who wins Game 7 -- Bynum has guaranteed a win for what it's worth -- the Lakers now know Bynum isn't just an integral piece to their championship puzzle, he is a budding leader who will sacrifice his body for the good of team.

After watching the impact Bynum has had on the team when he's in the game and the way he's inspired his teammates to play through their various injuries, it's hard to casually include him trade talks as has routinely been the case in the past. Bynum is no longer simply an oft-injured prospect, he has become an inspirational force in the locker room and has shown he can be one of the best centers in the league when he's healthy.

Simply seeing Bynum start every game of this postseason has given the Lakers a boost that can't be quantified in any box score or appreciated by anyone who hasn't seen Bynum grimacing in pain in the locker room after every game as trainers tend to his swollen right knee.

"We've drawn a great deal off of him," said Lakers guard Derek Fisher. "It's one of those examples of what his leadership will become as he matures and goes on in this league, and in this organization. His teammates now and his teammates in the future, they'll always be able to look to this time, and will say, 'This guy is committed to the success of his team, and he's putting a lot on the line because he knows that he can help, he can be the difference.'"

Bynum has taken a page from Kobe Bryant's media handbook and downplayed the injury throughout the playoffs, basically admitting it hurts but refusing to use it as an excuse or miss any games because of it.

As Bryant declared earlier in these playoffs: "The thing with injuries is everybody kind of looks at each other and tries to figure out which one is going to be the first punk. Because we will talk about you like a dog, like a chump. So nobody wants to be the chump."

It was a directive more than an answer. Bynum needed no such guidance.

Even when Phil Jackson has hinted at sitting Bynum out because of the injury and his ineffectiveness, Bynum has ignored it and promised he will play. His teammates have tempered their praise of him during the Finals, not wanting to single him out for playing hurt when many players on the team are playing through injuries. But make no mistake about it, if the Lakers win, Bynum is one of the first players everyone in the organization will hug and thank afterward.

"We haven't showered him with over-the-top love and adulation," Fisher said. "But if we finish our job [Thursday], he deserves as much credit as anyone. There's a hug for him at the end, no question, no question."

Although the injury cloud and questions about his durability will shadow Bynum until he can finally make it through a season injury-free, this postseason has proved Bynum doesn't need to be handled with kid gloves anymore. The youngster who would seemingly go to the nurse's office and miss a week of school every time he got a bloody nose has proved he can take a beating from the bully every day and come back stronger for it.

"His teammates are here every day and they see the swelling that takes place in his knee after games and the pain that he's in and the fact that he's willing to lay it all on the line to accomplish our goal of winning the championship," said Lakers assistant coach Brian Shaw. "He knows what his importance to us is against this team; how vital his size is for us. Whatever he can give us it gives us an emotional boost knowing he's out there."

Bynum's knee has been a constant focus for the Lakers and the media covering them during the postseason, and while Bynum is glad the season is coming to an end, he's also hoping Thursday will be the last time his knee is the focus of his contribution to the team.

"I think this one when we win it will taste much sweeter than the one last year just knowing I played through the injury and came through and helped the team win," he said. "Hopefully this is the last story you'll have to write about the knee."

As Bynum gingerly walked off the court Wednesday to get more treatment on his knee, he said the best treatment would probably come Thursday night if the Lakers win the championship.

"It's not going to feel that bad when we win," he said. "I'll probably be jumping around and acting crazy."

Arash Markazi is a columnist and reporter for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/ArashMarkazi.