Somewhere in L.A.’s Western Conference Semi-Final series against the Houston Rockets, two things happened to Andrew Bynum, one physical and one mental: He started to get closer to his pre-injury conditioning level just as a strategic light bulb flipped on in his head.
The 21-year-old center realized that if he committed fully to protecting the rim, rebounding and getting up and down the floor in defensive transition, the Lakers would be very hard to beat. Makes sense, right? His offense would come naturally, but couldn’t be his focus.
“I think after the Houston series everyone really realized, ‘Look this is what it is, what we need to do,’” he said after Friday’s practice. “We’re going to have to play defense. Everybody’s going to have to sacrifice offense, it will take care of itself, especially with us. We have a deep team and everybody (can) score, it’s going to come down to how many people we stop, how many stops we can get in a row.”
That mindset led to a generally productive – and underrated – series against Denver that doesn’t show up in the numbers, and culminated in the young center’s nine-point, nine-rebound performance in 22:23 of NBA Finals playing time that essentially canceled out Dwight Howard’s 12 points and 15 boards in 35 minutes.
“You have to limit his easy stuff,” said Bynum, who did exactly that as Howard mustered just one field goal on six attempts. “Make him make shots over the top of the defense, make him have to earn all of his buckets.”
Surely the Lakers would take a draw between Howard, the Defensive Player of the Year and All-NBA First Team member, and Bynum.
But rewind back a few weeks ago when Bynum struggled with unconventional matchups (Utah’s Paul Millsap, Houston’s Chuck Hayes or Carl Landry) while trying to come back from his knee injury that limited his minutes and made finding a rhythm seem more difficult than keeping his 7-foot head from hitting a door ledge. There was something besides time and increased conditioning that helped Bynum get his mind right: Watching film.
Earlier this week, Bynum told the Orange County Register’s Kevin Ding how he was planning on defending Howard (a sample: “You’ve got to keep him as far away from the basket as possible”), because he’d already started watching tape with his teammates and coaches, including Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. As such, Bynum felt pretty comfortable with what Howard was going to do in Game 1.
“It’s definitely rewarding when that happens, and (watching film) is all part of it,” he said. “That’s something the coaching staff came to empower myself about. Cap (Abdul-Jabbar) watched film with us, came and told us, ‘Look, this is what you’re going to have to do against this guy.’”
Bynum could see what Howard wanted to do on one hand, and on the other, observe how much better the Lakers were against the Nuggets and Rockets (games five and seven specifically) when he was most active defensively. The proof was right there in front of him. True to form, his defensive focus (not to mention his eight first quarter points) certainly worked against the Magic in Game 1 of the Finals, leaving Orlando searching for a way to deal not just with the length of Bynum in the paint, but of Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, who collectively give L.A. three long and skilled post players that Orlando simply didn’t have to face in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
“I think the matchups are for us a little bit more, having L.O. out there and Pau out there,” Bynum continued. “The same advantage that they had, I think they just lost it. They had that ridiculous advantage against Cleveland where Delonte West was playing (Hedo) Turkoglu and somebody else small was playing Rashard Lewis. So now it’s a little bit different. And we’re really running them off the three-point line, that’s a big difference too. They’re swinging it around searching for that three that they were getting wide open. I think we have to just keep doing that.”
Bynum gets it.
He understands what he needs to do, what L.A. needs to do. And that’s certainly not good news for the Magic.
To watch Bynum, Derek Fisher, Lamar Odom, Trevor Ariza and advance scout Rasheed Hazzard’s post-practice video, CLICK HERE.