- Ramona Shelburne, ESPN Senior Writer
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LOS ANGELES -- For as long as anyone can remember in these parts, Andrew Bynum has said pretty much whatever he wanted. Good, bad or indifferent, what was in his head came out of his mouth.
In his younger days, before he became one of the best centers in the game and a guy the Lakers started counting on, that candor was refreshing and amusing.
But now, when Bynum's words are taken by fans, teammates and opponents as the opinion of one of the Lakers' leaders, it sits differently.
There was nothing wrong with Bynum saying that "closeout games are actually kind of easy" because "teams tend to fold if you come out and play hard in the beginning." It was bold, but truthful.
In the best of lights, Bynum may have been trying to be a leader with that quote. To implore his teammates to come out of the gates hard against the Denver Nuggets in Game 5 of their Western Conference first-round series Tuesday night.
But the problem with leading with swagger is how bad it looks if you don't back it up in the game.
For about six minutes in the Lakers' 102-99 loss to the Nuggets, Bynum played with the kind of energy and attitude that backed up his words. Six minutes out of the 48 biggest minutes of the Lakers' season, and the wrong six minutes at that.
It wasn't until Kobe Bryant led the Lakers on a furious rally at the end of the fourth quarter, very nearly erasing a 15-point lead, that Bynum seemed engaged and effective. The rest of the time he was either frustrated, pouting, annoyed or lethargic.
"I think I came out and tried to do well," Bynum said afterward. "Then obviously not getting the ball, it's tough when you don't get up shots. I shot eight times (Bynum finished with 16 points on 5-for-8 shooting). That's really it.
"I got to find out a way to go out and do well with getting the ball down lower and going quicker. Just making little adjustments."
What Bynum's referring to is something that has been a familiar refrain among Lakers big men this season. The Lakers are most effective when they play inside-out, with Bynum getting the ball early in the offensive possession and either making a move and scoring it himself, or passing it back outside to Bryant on the perimeter so he can slash and create, look to Pau Gasol at the high post or pass out to a shooter for a 3-pointer.
That's obvious. So obvious that most teams in the league try to deny the entry pass to Bynum and/or double- or triple-team him once he catches it. Denver has gotten better and better at it as the series has gone on because the Lakers' shooters haven't been able to make them pay.
All of these are the type of issues an elite player faces every game. The price of becoming an All-Star and an offensive force that teams have to game-plan against and deal with.
Over his career, Bryant has dealt with dozens of defensive looks designed to stop him. He has adjusted to all of them to varying degrees.
That's the next level. The one Bynum so desperately wants to get to, but hasn't reached yet. It's the reason he leads with his swagger so often. As if acting the part will make it so.
The Lakers have no choice but to live with him as he exists in this stage and hope he soon grows out of it. It's good to have swagger. They'd rather Bynum push too far sometimes than not push at all.
But as Bryant said after the game, "It's a lesson learned; you never want to give a team bulletin board material to begin with. But If you're going to be a champion, you've got to play through that kind of stuff."
It was the closest anyone on the Lakers came to criticizing Bynum's pregame sentiments. And appropriately it came from Bryant, the only person on the team with any idea of what Bynum might be going through.
Bynum respects Bryant, so he just might listen.
But if he's wise, and the jury is still out on that, he'll also listen to Gasol when he says, "We're not always going to be walking down the court and throwing the first pass to the post," Gasol said. "That's predictable and that's easy to defend."
It wasn't all that long ago that Gasol was dealing with some of the same issues. Actually, those issues first came to light against these same Denver Nuggets during the Lakers' 2009 playoff run.
Gasol has about as different of a personality from Bynum's as there is, but when faced with a similar situation, he grew just as frustrated.
Instead of pouting, though, Gasol picked it up. Instead of waiting for the ball to come, he went and got it off the offensive glass. The result was his finest hour as a Laker as he went toe-to-toe with Orlando's Dwight Howard in the NBA Finals and came out ahead.
It wasn't easy. But then again, neither are closeout games.
13hMatt Walks, ESPN.com