For all the talk about Kobe being the best player on the planet and Pau Gasol being the steal of the millennium, the Lakers’ most critical player is a 20-year-old with a bum knee.
That “duh” moment occurred with just a few ticks left in Thursday’s stunning Game 4 of the NBA Finals when Celtic guard Ray Allen – not exactly MJ when it comes to one-on-one moves – made a move to his right and slipped past Lakers guard Sasha Vujacic then reached the basket for an pre-game warmup-like layup before Gasol or Derek Fisher could intervene.
As the soon-to-be-33-year-old Allen sashayed to the rim for his 18th and 19th points of the game, it popped into my head: What would have happened to him had Andrew Bynum been there?
For those with short memories, it was the kid, a former No. 10 pick in the draft who pretty much spent a year being tutored by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who got the Lakers off to their hot start this season.
Bynum bolted out of the paddock like a wild colt, averaging 13 points, 10 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks in the first 13 games of the season. He was a bonafide, old-school presence around the basket, which is why the Lakers suddenly – just weeks after Bryant wanted to ship all of his teammates out of town – were the top dogs in the West.
But Bynum went down with a knee injury on Jan. 13 and has not returned. It’s the reason the Lakers, even with Bryant, are on the brink of elimination in the NBA Finals.
You might catch a glimpse of him behind the bench, still with the ball boy’s face.
For all their size and offensive skills, the Lakers’ big men – Lamar Oden and Gasol – couldn’t wrestle a handbag from an old lady. It’s who they are. It’s who they’ve always been.
On the defensive end of the court, they have as much presence as Casper the Friendly Ghost (and about the same demeanor).
Bryant knows. Earlier in the playoffs, during the Utah series, he admitted the Lakers have missed Bynum.
“He’s a legitimate, 7-1, long-wing-span, natural shot blocker, so add Andrew, it takes us to another level defensively,” Bryant said.
The Lakers fulfilled as much promise as they could without him, and they may still make history by becoming the first team ever to arise from a 1-3 deficit in the Finals to win an NBA title.
But in his heart, perhaps he now knows that this Laker team, no matter what happens in the rest of the series, is playing for ’09. Next year, Bryant said at the time, “we’ll be one helluva team.”
Now they’re just a team missing one of its most vital – not its best – player. Against these Celtics it may be too much to overcome.