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Lakers again forced to do without injured Bynum

By Marc J. Spears
Globe Staff / February 5, 2009
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TORONTO - When the Lakers return to TD Banknorth Garden tonight for the first time since last spring's NBA Finals, their team will closely resemble the one the Celtics beat in that series, since recently injured center Andrew Bynum will not be in uniform.

While Lakers star Kobe Bryant is far from a doctor and doesn't own a crystal ball, he projected that the 21-year-old Bynum, who missed 46 regular-season games and last season's playoffs after suffering a subluxation of his left patella, will be back for the stretch run this time.

The 7-foot Bynum had transformed the Lakers into a dominant bunch with his All-Star-caliber play of late at both ends of the court. However, he will miss 8-12 weeks after suffering a torn medial collateral ligament in his right knee at Memphis Saturday. Bryant is confident the Lakers will continue to play at a high level without Bynum, and be that much better when he returns.

"We were fine last year," said Bryant after the Lakers' shootaround yesterday morning at Air Canada Centre before they beat the Raptors, 115-107, last night. "We just fell a couple games short of our end goal. He'll be back and we'll be fine. Everyone is like doomsday because he missed the season last year. It's not the same injury. He'll be back and we will be ready to roll."

Bynum averaged 13.1 points and 10.2 rebounds prior to his injury last season. And after Bynum exited, the Lakers acquired forward-center Pau Gasol in a trade with Memphis.

With Gasol and Lamar Odom in the post, the Lakers went on to win the Western Conference title before losing to the Celtics in six games. But the Lakers had to wonder if the Finals would have been different if Bynum and Gasol were on the floor together.

"We went to the Finals with this lineup," Odom said. "But I would rather be at full strength. We are a much better team with Andrew and with myself coming off the bench. But we know we can play with this lineup and we know we can play well."

Coming off surgery to his left knee, Bynum was up and down during the first two months this season and discouraged by his limited role late in games. But when 2009 arrived, a breakthrough occurred for the New Jersey native who spurned a scholarship to the University of Connecticut to turn pro out of high school.

Bynum averaged 17.3 points and 7.8 rebounds a game in January. He became the first Laker other than Bryant in five years to score more than 40 points when he put up a career-high 42 Jan. 21 against the Clippers. During the five games before he was injured, Bynum averaged 26.2 points on 65.3 percent shooting, 13.8 rebounds, and 3.2 blocks.

Much has been made about Bynum's offensive skills. But Celtics coach Doc Rivers recently raved about Bynum's defense and said it altered his team's shots in the Lakers' 92-83 Christmas Day win. The Lakers, in fact, had Bynum watch video of Celtics center Kendrick Perkins to help his defense. At the time of his injury, Bynum was sixth in the NBA in blocks per game (1.87), and he had a season-high six blocks against Charlotte Jan. 27.

"[Bynum's] effectiveness was [aided] by the fact we started playing a defense that got in rotation and really clogged the lane," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson after Tuesday's practice here. "Andrew was very effective with us in that regard. During the month of January, he really picked it up."

With Bynum and Gasol both in the starting lineup, Odom coming off the bench, and Bryant scoring at will, the Lakers were dominating the Western Conference. But when Bynum was injured when Bryant fell into him after an off-balance drive, the Lakers' title hopes took a hit.

Bynum is back in Los Angeles and is expected to begin rehabilitation in about a week. According to the team, he will miss at least three-quarters of the remaining regular-season games and might not return until the first round of the playoffs.

"I just felt bad for him and said, 'Not again.' He's worked so hard," Bryant said. "You don't want to see him get hurt again. You got a similar situation [as before], but it's not the same injury. We still have to deal with it."

Said Odom, "It was painful for a couple of seconds hearing one of your teammates on the floor screaming. You never want to see that."

The loss of Bynum is sure to have a trickle-down effect. Gasol is starting at center and playing more in the post. Odom is starting at power forward and makes the Lakers more of a finesse team than a physical one. The Lakers also have to depend more on reserve big men Josh Powell and Chris Mihm, an ex-Celtic. And not having Bynum in the lane will make it easier for opponents to attack with drives.

Bryant scored 61 points against the Knicks in New York Monday in the first game since Bynum was hurt, but says he will play the same offensively. He added 36 last night in Toronto.

"With Andrew out of the lineup, it forces me to be a little bit more aggressive and produce a little more down low," said Gasol, who scored 31 points against the Knicks. "He's been very productive for us lately. It gives me much more freedom and more minutes. I feel I can produce and be much more aggressive out there. And with Kobe being Kobe, it draws a lot of attention from the teammates to get them easier looks and better looks."

Bryant said, "It's the same role I had [last season]. We had Andrew go down for half the year. The same way I played then is the same way I play now."

The Lakers feel this season's team without Bynum is better than the one that went to the Finals minus Bynum. The reasons include Gasol being with the team the entire season, forward Trevor Ariza being healthier, more overall experience, and a better, more focused defense.

"We are very comfortable with this group of guys," Jackson said.

Bryant said, "We're fine. Having him makes us a better team, but we're still good enough to get the job done."

In the Lakers' last visit to TD Banknorth Garden, they were hammered, 131-92, in Game 6 of the Finals as the Celtics captured their 17th NBA title. Odom believes tonight will be a statement game for both teams and hopes the Lakers have a chance to redeem themselves in the Finals against Boston. If a Finals rematch does happen, it's up in the air as to how much of a factor Bynum will be.

"The big thing for us is we won't put him on the floor until we feel he is close to 100 percent," Jackson said. "But the big thing for a big guy like that is you can't duplicate the type of play that you have to play in the NBA until you are on the floor. Even practice doesn't simulate what's going to happen when you get out there with those bodies banging around.

"It took Andrew a while to get back to form through training camp and everything. If he only has a week or two or maybe three to try to get back and play at the level he left off, we don't know what that is going to bring. We'll have to just wait and see."

"Hopefully, I'll get back sooner than later," Bynum said Monday in New York. "I'm keeping a positive attitude."

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