Apr 29, 2012; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers center Andrew Bynum (17) and power forward Pau Gasol (16) block a shot by Denver Nuggets point guard Ty Lawson (3) in the first half of game one in the Western Conference quarterfinals of the 2012 NBA Playoffs at the Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-US PRESSWIRE
Just one game. That's how long it took the Los Angeles Lakers to show they mean business this postseason. Or, at least, that's how long it took Andrew Bynum to show that he can mean business, and meaning business for Bynum means trouble for the rest of the league. In compiling only the 2nd playoff triple double of points, blocks, and rebounds ever, the precocious Lakers big man showed that defensive dominance is still very much one of the tricks in his bag.
It's a trick the Lakers have missed quite often this season. Drew has rarely been the kind of game changing presence on defense that he's so clearly capable of being. Instead, he's put considerably more energy into expanding his offensive presence, and he's had a great deal of success doing so. But the bottom line is that the Lakers are always at their best when Drew is locked in defensively. Kobe Bryant can score points. So too can Pau Gasol, Ramon Sessions, and whoever Ramon Sessions passes the ball to. But nobody on the team can fill the lane on defense, affecting shots in such a wide arc around the rim and cleaning up the glass as effectively as Bynum can. Hell, there's only one person in the league who can do those things as effectively as Bynum can, and Dwight Howard won't be suiting up in these playoffs.
Which means the Lakers have an edge that no other team can match.
In the years previous to this one, in which the Lakers ran rampant through the league en route to a back to back championships before melting down last season, it was the Lakers tremendous size which always ended up wearing opponents down. Starting with Drew and Gasol, and rotating in Lamar Odom, the Lakers were guaranteed to have an advantage inside at all times. With Odom out of town, the Lakers size advantage hasn't been as consistent because the back up big men have been so terrible, but even that equation seems to have been restored, because Jordan Hill is starting to provide exactly what the Lakers need out of a back up big man. Hill is the perfect compliment to Gasol and Bynum, defending pick and rolls adeptly (which is sometimes a weakness of Bynum's game) and hitting the boards with aplomb (sometimes a weakness of Gasol's). Hill is no Odom, not even close, but the Lakers don't need him to be. They simply need him to do well whatever it is that the other big man on the court with him does not, and so far, he's providing that quality perfectly.
But it all comes back to Bynum. If there is a blueprint to winning a championship, a top notch defense is most certainly involved. The Lakers, statistically, do not have a top notch defense. In fact, their defense is far worse this year than it ever has been in the Kobe-Pau-Drew championship winning era. If the Lakers truly are a team only capable of the 13th best defense in the league, this season will not end successfully. But the Laker team that showed up at Staples Center is far better defensively than the numbers allow. The Denver Nuggets have the third ranked offense in the league, and the Lakers held them to 92 points per 100 possessions.
Some of that was Denver's doing. Do not expect Ty Lawson to be such a shell of his own performance all series long. He's a better shooter than he showed in Game 1, and a better playmaker, too. Aron Afflalo couldn't hit from outside, and he's been automatic in the weeks leading up to this series. Al Harrington and Andre Miller can both play better as well. The Nuggets are far more talented than the team that showed up today, and that talent will make an appearance at some point.
But if Andrew Bynum and the rest of the squad sticks to the blueprint, it just won't matter. Because the Lakers have plenty of room for improvement themselves. Pau Gasol can shoot better than he did today. Bynum shot for a great percentage but got very few touches because Denver was so aggressively double teaming him. If they continue to do so, it will continue to make the offense easy for other folks. Same with Kobe Bryant. The Nuggets stopped doubling him in the 2nd half, and he responded with 9-14 shooting to make his first half struggles be quickly forgotten. The team has enough weapons that the offense will not be a problem. The defense is the key. The defense is the blueprint.
Andrew Bynum knows the blue print, and he's shown us that he can be the center of a highly successful defense. Whether he will keep it up remains to be seen. After all, we've seen this from Drew before, only for that defense to disappear for reasons unknown when the Lakers truly need it. But, if Bynum can be even half the disruptive force he was today, the Lakers will be poised for a deep run in this postseason. After all, the blue print may not be the same for all teams, but defensive presence is certainly a part of all teams' blueprints. And if you take a look around the league, you'll notice only one team who has such a massive defensive anchor.