The Lakers’ four-game winning streak came to an end Tuesday night following their 117-110 2OT loss to the visiting Charlotte Bobcats, but the emergence of their 21-year-old big man in the middle pushed full steam ahead.
Honored recently as the Western Conference Player of the Week, seven-footer Andrew Bynum dominated former second-overall pick Emeka Okafor in the paint en route to 24 points (10-14 FG), 14 boards, and a season-high 6 blocked shots. With Kobe Bryant fouled out and assuming an assistant coach’s role on the bench during the second overtime stanza, the Lakers turned not to Pau Gasol but to Bynum, who responded with a dazzling mix of fakes, jukes, and drop steps that effectively rendered Okafor a slumped-shouldered stiff, a gawking bystander, and another in an increasingly long line of defenders finding out just what this young man is capable of.
Bynum and the Lakers ultimately came up short, again, versus the Bobcats. (Charlotte has now beaten them in five of the last six meetings.) In the bigger picture, however, Phil Jackson’s show of faith in not only leaving Bynum on the floor during the waning minutes of the fourth quarter, but also in running sets designed to get him the ball in double OT, is a step in the right direction for the evolution of this talented player and for this loaded team.
Over his past four games, Bynum has played with passion, poise, and a palatable sense of increasing confidence in averaging an astounding 26 points (61% FG), 13.5 boards, and 3.5 blocks. Maybe it has something to do with Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s positive influence from the bench in recent games, or with Kobe sacrificing field-goal attempts and going out of his way to better get Bynum involved early and often. Or, maybe, the kid that was 17 years old when the Lakers drafted him straight out of high school with the 10th pick of the 2005 NBA Draft is finally ready to put last year’s devastating knee injury behind him, and is finally realizing that he has the body, the skills, and the surrounding cast to be a 20 and 10 guy now.
He gets his fair share of gimmes, but unlike some other young bruisers in the post, Bynum’s offensive repertoire is hardly limited to the dunk. He’s running the floor hard and getting easy looks off of his teammates’ penetration. He’s getting the ball outside the paint, backing his man down, then spinning, faking, and laying it up as his hapless defender puts his socks back on. He’s working much harder to establish himself low on the block, then keeping the ball high once he gets it, facing up, backing up, then being decisive in whichever move he makes from there. He’s shown some flair with an improved baby hook, too, but that part of his game is still very much a work in progress.
On the other end, we’re seeing him challenge shots, pressure shots, and block shots and for the most part stay out of foul trouble. Against the Bobcats, he also did a nice job defending the high pick-and-roll for a man of his size, showing good instincts and reaction time–yet another sign that not only is Bynum’s agility and knee strength improving, but also his basketball IQ.
Remember when Kobe was furious that GM Mitch Kupchak refused to trade Bynum in a package deal for Jason Kidd? We’re now seeing the wisdom in Kupchak’s restraint and the big payoff he anticipated might one day come.