DENVER -- About an hour before Game 3 tipped off, I was chatting with a Los Angeles Lakers assistant coach.
One of things we discussed was the scenario of an NBA Finals between the Lakers and Miami Heat.
"How would Kobe take it if Bynum won Finals MVP? He'd eat Miami up inside," I asked, admittedly getting a little ahead of myself.
"Hey, it could happen," the coach replied.
And why not? As brilliant as Kobe Bryant was through the Lakers' two wins to start this playoff series against the Denver Nuggets, going off for 30-plus points in both games, it was Andrew Bynum who was the team's MVP.
He started off the series with 10 points, 13 rebounds and 10 blocks in Game 1 -- registering the first playoff triple-double by a Laker since Magic Johnson in 1991 while tying the league's playoff record for blocked shots.
He backed that up with a personal playoff career high of 27 points in Game 2 to go with nine rebounds and two blocks.
Then came Bynum's first half of Game 3: zero points on 0-for-3 shooting, five rebounds, one blocked shot and a 16-point deficit to the Nuggets after they led by as many as 24 in what turned out to be a 99-84 Denver win.
Bynum proved his value just as much in his struggles as he did when he shined.
Quite simply, Bynum isn't a bonus for the Lakers any longer. He's a necessity. If he doesn't show up, even if it's just for a half -- heck, even if it's just for a quarter -- the Lakers are in jeopardy as evidenced Friday's result.
"I wasn't ready to play," Bynum said after the game. "That's really it. I just wasn't really ready."
The lapse was enough to breathe new life into the Nuggets, who looked hapless in L.A. but downright dominant in the first half in Denver.
The Nuggets ate up the Lakers inside, outscoring L.A. 52-32 in the paint by game's end. Sure, that figure was aided by the Lakers' settling for too many outside shots (and going just 6-for-25 on 3-pointers in the process), but it was also by design.
"So much of our game plan was to try to keep it out of the paint, and if it got to the paint, don't have a concept, everybody just come to the ball and then scramble," Nuggets coach George Karl said. "It was more just collapse."
Bynum adjusted in the second half, scoring all 18 of his points and adding seven rebounds and a block to bring his final line to a more-than-respectable 18 and 12, but it was ultimately too little, too late.
"I just got aggressive," Bynum said. "I got angry and played a little better."
Bynum's anger almost derailed him late in the third quarter when he shot a floater in the lane and JaVale McGee swatted the ball away when it was already on its way down. It should have been a goaltending call and Bynum went berserk on his way back down the court, first yelling at Bryant, who was trying to get him settled back into the game, and then having to be held back from referee Michael Smith on the Lakers' ensuing timeout.
"He kind of lost it there for a second," Bryant said. "He went crazy."
Said Bynum: "It's, like, almost ridiculous. I shot a floater and the guy backs up and plays Euro-style ball or something [to swat it away]. I don't know. But it should be called."
What's also almost ridiculous was that after McGee's block, the ball ended up in Ramon Sessions' hands and he nailed an open 18-foot jumper on the same possession to cut Denver's lead to just five. There was still a positive result from the play, yet Bynum focused on the negative of the missed call.
Bryant refused to blame Bynum's slow start for the loss ("That's not what cost us the ballgame," he said), instead pointing to all of L.A.'s blanks from long range, but it's obvious the Lakers cannot reach their potential this postseason with the type of effort Bynum showed in the first two quarters.
"We know what kind of impact he can have on the game when he plays a consistent game throughout," Pau Gasol said.
No offense to McGee, who played with incredible energy and finished with 16 points, 15 rebounds and three blocks off the bench, but he has no business guarding Bynum when Bynum's engaged. There was one play in the third quarter when all McGee could do was hug Bynum's middle as he was going up and Bynum still converted the bucket, plus made the foul shot to complete the three-point play.
If you look across the rest of the playoff field, there isn't a big man remaining whom you would say Bynum wouldn't have the advantage over in a seven-game series.
After receiving postgame treatment on his right knee, Bynum was the last Laker standing in an empty visitor's locker room Friday night. As he started to get dressed, there was a chair in front of his locker, making it difficult to maneuver as he tried to put on his jeans. Bynum tossed the chair on its side and out of his way.
He's angry now. You have to think he'll be ready from the start in Game 4.