Commentary

Andrew Bynum steps up as closer

Updated: March 12, 2012, 2:23 AM ET
By Dave McMenamin | ESPNLosAngeles.com

LOS ANGELES -- For as much as we don't know about the Los Angeles Lakers at this point -- including whether they'll trade Pau Gasol or if this a championship roster or what direction Jim Buss will take them in the future -- there is one undisputed fact: If Kobe Bryant is on the floor in crunch time, he wants to shoot the ball.

[+] EnlargeAndrew Bynum
Gary A. Vasquez/US PresswireAndrew Bynum scored 20 points against the Celtics, including some crucial ones down the stretch.

He lives for it. He relishes it. It is how he identifies himself as a competitor.

So, it was no minor thing on Sunday when Bryant entered the timeout huddle with 23.8 seconds left -- and the Lakers up one over the Boston Celtics -- and relinquished his role as the closer.

"He basically said, 'Use me as a decoy,'" Lakers coach Mike Brown said.

Bryant is the league's leading scorer in the fourth quarter and overtime this season, according to ESPN Stats & Info (his 291 points are followed by Kevin Durant's 273), but he put the ball in Andrew Bynum's hands for the game's most crucial possession.

How significant was it to see Bryant trust Bynum in that situation?

"Probably more than what we can elaborate on right now," said Derek Fisher, previously the only other guy on the Lakers' roster who could get his fair share of last-second shots with Bryant on the floor.

As the play developed, Kevin Garnett initially fronted Bynum in the post instead of pushing him out from behind in case he had to hedge farther out to the perimeter to contest Bryant. This allowed Bynum better post position when he received the entry pass and he was able to shoot a jump hook over Garnett with 15.5 seconds left, giving the Lakers the three-point cushion they held on to in their 97-94 win.

"Once he got his body on him and the defense wasn't quite sure what to do in that situation, he got to the middle and got a good jump hook," said Bryant, who finished with 26 points on 20 shots compared to Bynum's 20 points on 16 attempts. "I knew it was going to be a high-percentage shot and I knew he was going to know what to do with it."

The Lakers' two All-Stars, who spent part of their All-Star Weekend in Orlando getting on the same page with the Lakers' struggling offense, figured it out together.

The Lakers know that Brown isn't going to change Bryant. Having poured in more than 29,000 career points, he's not going reinvent himself as something other than a volume scorer after 16 seasons. Bryant's will to score cannot be broken, but he proved Sunday he's willing to bend.

"It was crazy," was the first thing Bynum said when asked about the play. For longtime Bryant observers, it was an apt choice of words. "I was actually looking forward to the opportunity when they drew it up for me in the huddle. All I could think about was, 'I better make it,' and I did. It feels really good, and hopefully I can get some more touches down there."

Pau Gasol, who has played second fiddle next to Bryant long enough to know exactly how much Bryant enjoys riffing solo at the end of games, recognized the shift in Bryant as much as the execution by Bynum.

"It was a good sign," Gasol said. "It was something positive that we recognized, and Kobe recognized Andrew had an advantage, was hard to stop and it was also unexpected probably. Probably Boston didn't expect it, either, because we're so used to Kobe taking that last shot no matter what."

Bryant's determination to prove his stuff at the end of games is similar to how Bynum has treated this season as his personal breaking-out party. He doesn't want more touches, he requires them. He isn't pleased by an increase in his numbers, he expects them.

For all the attention to what the Lakers don't have this season -- no Chris Paul, no Dwight Howard, no consistency at the small forward or point guard position  it's been easy to overlook what they do have in Bynum, a 24-year-old playing the best basketball of his life who is one of a handful of players in the conversation about the game's top big men.

"When his energy is up," Fisher said, "we're a very difficult team to beat. A lot of what we do on both ends of the floor rides on what Andrew is doing out there."

Bynum continues to do it with his injury history in the back of his mind. On Sunday, Bynum bruised his right knee (the one covered by a heavy brace during games) while trying to split a double-team from Garnett and Paul Pierce. All he ended up missing in terms of action was the Lakers' shootaround after halftime. He played 41 minutes, but banging knees was enough to shake the 7-footer mentally.

"I wanted to do so much more," Bynum said. "I felt I sold myself short a little bit [because of the injury]."

Bynum's ascension is always going to come with a tinge of regret. Injuries caused him to miss an average of 31 games a season from 2007 to 2011.

"I don't know where I could be if I didn't get hurt," said Bynum after the game, while wearing a large, diamond-encrusted All-Star 2012 ring on his left hand. "We could talk about that all day."

If he never got hurt, maybe that All-Star ring is joined by a few others like it, as well an NBA championship ring from the 2008 Finals, which Bynum sat out when the Lakers played the Celtics.

Now's not the time to rehash the past, but rather spend all day talking about the future in a Lakers world where Bynum can grow as Bryant's co-closer in the clutch.

Dave McMenamin

ESPNLosAngeles.com