- Dave McMenamin, ESPN.com
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MEMPHIS, Tenn. -- The Los Angeles Lakers stay at a hotel across the street from the FedEx Forum when they come to town to play the Memphis Grizzlies. So, when word got out the team bus was delayed at the end of shootaround, a contingent of players decided they would simply walk back rather than wait for the ride.
All they had to do was walk up a flight of stairs from the court up to the main concourse and they'd be out on the street and back at the hotel in a matter of minutes.
Andrew Bynum, who only participated in the walk through portion of shootaround and had an electro stimulation device attached to his right knee with one leg of his warm-up pants rolled halfway up his leg, decided to join them.
Step by step he labored up the stairs, hearing catcalls from teammates ("C'mon, big fella!") along the way, yet he kept true to his slow, but steady stride.
About seven hours after treating a set of arena stairs like Mount Kilimanjaro, Bynum treated the Memphis defense like a nonentity. Bynum was thoroughly dominant on offense, scoring 37 points while going 15-of-18 from the field to go with 16 rebounds in the Lakers' 116-111 double-overtime win, a game in which the Lakers trailed by as many as 17 in the third quarter.
Bynum's past five games have been a breakout stretch in what has been a breakout season for the seven-year veteran who made his first All-Star appearance in Orlando last month. Bynum is averaging 26.4 points and 12 rebounds in his past five games, while shooting a ridiculous 54-for-75 (72 percent) from the field. During the stretch, he has topped the 30-point plateau twice after doing it just once in the first 365 games of his career.
Bynum started the season out in similar fashion, putting up 29 points and 13 rebounds in his first game back from a four-game suspension to begin the season and following that up with 21 points and 22 rebounds -- the first 20-20 of his career -- two games later. But what he's doing now?
"This is different," said Kobe Bryant, who scored 34 points of his own, marking the first time he and Bynum topped 30 together in the same game. "This is different. The big games that he had at the start of the season, he was having good games, but he wasn't being featured. This is different. We're featuring him and we're looking for him to make plays out of double teams and make plays for others, not just himself. This is different than at the start of the year."
And this season has been different for Bynum, period.
He has played in all 38 games he has been eligible for, not missing a single contest because of injury. He's doing whatever is necessary to stay on the court night after night, be it taking pain medication as he did in Memphis on Tuesday or sacrificing his All-Star showcase by using the free weekend to get a combination Synvisc and cortisone injection into his right knee to keep his body moving the way he wants it to for the rest of the season.
His improved health has coincided with a call to action. He's no longer a bonus for this Lakers team. He's a requirement if they are to succeed.
"Drew is in a new role this year for us," Lakers coach Mike Brown said. "I don't know if he's ever been in this role before."
As Bynum has been thrust into the role -- in part because of his health, in part because of the trade of Lamar Odom to Dallas that left L.A. with no viable backup to siphon minutes from him, in part because of the aging Bryant and Pau Gasol -- it only truly started to show when his teammates bought into him as "that guy."
We saw it Sunday against Boston when Bryant deferred to Bynum on the game-sealing play coming out of timeout in the fourth quarter. We saw it again in the two overtimes Tuesday as the Lakers scored 14 points in the two extra periods, Bynum accounting for eight of them.
"They're trusting in me now and they're just looking to give me the ball," Bynum said. "When I get it, I'm doing decent things with it. I can cut down on the turnovers, but that's part of learning about being a dominant player."
Bynum has set his bar at dominant. There's a reason Bryant is at the top of the list of players growing in his trust for Bynum. All Bryant ever wanted to be on the basketball court is dominant, too.
"He can do it every night," Bryant said. "He's been doing it every night. When you're a great player, it kind of comes easy to you -- the rhythm and the reads and stuff like that. So, he can keep on doing it for sure."
Bryant is not one to heap praise indiscriminately, so bestowing Bynum with the "great player" tag was no mistake. Gasol has been, and will continue to be -- if he's not traded by Thursday's deadline -- as important a teammate with whom Bryant has ever played. But Bynum is the one Bryant knows he'll have to ride if he's going to squeeze out a sixth championship as the Lakers feast on the interiors of teams such as Dallas, Oklahoma City and Miami's in the postseason.
"It's a time thing, for us and for him, to figure out where to put him, how to move him around and how to utilize him on that end of the floor," Brown said. "Because, as you guys can see, he's agile, he's athletic, he's skilled, he's strong and he's got a repertoire of moves down on the low block."
Ah, yes, true. But, Gasol was asked, if Bynum were growing?
"I think he's still 7 feet," Gasol cracked. "I don't think he's growing lately."
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com.