To Phil Jackson, L.A.’s formula for success en route to the past two championships is pretty simple.
“The force of our team is the length and the strength of our big guys,” he said after Thursday’s practice, a day after the team’s 103-88 victory in New Orleans. “Kobe (Bryant) drives the team, he has the energy for the team, but still it’s about making the defense have to look over their shoulders and help each other out inside, and then we can attack other places.”
That’s certainly what the Lakers have done in the past, and what they were able to do perhaps for the first time this season with 7-foot center Andrew Bynum returning to the starting line up after missing the first 24 games while recovering from offseason knee surgery and coming off the bench in the team’s past seven games.
He’d played an average of 17 minutes as the Lakers won four straight on the road against weaker opponents and then lost three straight, but on Wednesday in the Big Easy, Bynum was effective from the opening tip en route to 18 points with six rebounds in 30 minutes. Meanwhile, Lamar Odom — whom Jackson said has played at an All-Star level all season — willingly returned to the bench, then showed how little of a problem it was for him by scoring his career-high off the pine with 24 points.
“We knew we were going to have to make this move eventually, getting ‘Drew out there on the floor, and it was going to take a little bit of an experimental stage,” said Jackson. “Fortunately we came through with flying colors, but I thought it would be much more clumsy than it happened to be. We were able to do what we wanted to get done out there and shoot the ball well, too, so we’re happy with that.
“We know it’s going to take a little bit of time before we’re the full-fledged team that we think represents the championship teams that we’ve had.”
Perhaps so, but even with Bynum a few weeks away (in his estimation) of being fully ready to go, the Lakers looked like … well, the Lakers’ title teams in his first time playing regular minutes. The 23-year-old came through the game just fine, without any swelling, and will start against Philadelphia on Friday at Staples Center.
Bynum said that Odom’s been instrumental to his return, as L.A.’s most gregarious player has taken particular care to keep Bynum’s spirits up during his rehabilitation, telling him his starting spot was waiting as soon as he was ready. In New Orleans, Odom stood up to cheer on the bench when Bynum threw down his first alley-oop, then made 10-of-15 shots after checking in.
“He’s shooting 58 percent, and that’s one of the top shooters in the league,” said Jackson of Odom. “I think he’s very confident in what he can do out there on the floor. He knows what his game is, and he’s very comfortable assessing the game. He’s hungry for team play and he likes to help the team along.”
As for his willingness to return to the bench, a rarity for someone averaging 15.8 points and 9.8 rebounds?
“That’s the difference in championship teams,” explained Jackson. “We said it two years ago and last year, the difference is that you can guys that you can bring off the bench that are starters. In Lamar’s case, we have even an All-Star (willing to do it).”