"Close-out games are actually kind of easy. Teams tend to fold if you come out and play hard in the beginning, so we want to come out and establish an early lead and protect it."
Late Wednesday night, the above words, not just Kobe's magnificent 43-point performance, lingered in the minds of Lakers fans after LA's stunning 102-99 loss to the Denver Nuggets. Before the potential closeout Game 5 at Staples Center, CBS Sports anchor Jim Brown asked Bynum if it would be difficult to close out the series against a desperate Nuggets team. With a certain sense of nonchalance -- not really arrogance, but rather with a detached, matter-of-fact attitude -- Andrew proclaimed that he didn't really think that these types of contests were particularly difficult. And thus the quote that was no doubt printed and scattered throughout the Nuggets locker room.
But that was just a story. A news story to drum up interest in a game. That's why we play the games, no? Well, take a look at these two stat lines. Which were two of the biggest stories of that game.
Andrew Bynum: 16 points, 11 rebounds, 5 for 8 shooting, 1 block
JaVale...McGee: 21 points, 14 rebounds, 9 for 12 shooting, 2 blocks
JaVale...McGee? Yes, the extremely green McGee took a break from his rogue basketball activities to become re-engaged in this series and absolutely took Andrew Bynum to task last night. With Drew playing him largely single coverage, JaVale toasted the Lakers with a difference-making career night. Time after time, color commentator Steve Kerr noted how McGee was simply overpowering and slipping past Bynum in the post, and in a less surprising development, was denying him defensively on the other side of the court. While Drew getting only 8 shots isn't surprising looking at Kobe's 32 attempts, watching the game you'd notice how well McGee (and the other Nuggets) were able to very effectively seal off Bynum from even getting the ball on the block (and I didn't even get to Andrew's tech for a unwarranted full arm shove on Kenneth Faried in the back after a dunk).
Pretty humbling, right? Not only did the Lakers not have a easy time closing out Denver, but Andrew was personally embarrassed by the league's unintentional professional comedian in McGee. However, in only a way that Andrew could, he made these post-game comments after he was asked if he regretted his statement from earlier:
"No. We didn't get out to a good start and we lost, so I guess the same holds true. I didn't let my team down tonight. It's been tough getting the ball. The adjustment for me is going to be to somehow get the ball and do something with it."
Andrew isn't totally wrong here. The Lakers did get off to an awful start, not replicating Denver's energy at either end of the floor and forgetting to dial up the energy until halfway through the last quarter. Until Kobe's atomic fourth, he wasn't terribly effective offensively, nor was anyone else for that matter. The Lakers ended up shooting a miserable 38.9% from the field, with Matt Barnes and Ramon Sessions unable to buy a bucket whilst Andre Miller, Arron Afflalo and McGee were selling them wholesale. The team played awful on defense, giving up 102 points and a staggering 58 points in the paint, compared to their own 44. No, this wasn't entirely Bynum's fault. But besides allowing McGee to turn into Hakeem Olajuwan (same number and everything), Drew allowed a key stretch run basket to Andre Miller by missing a help assignment near the basket. Moreover, not enough could be said about the extra motivation that a careless comment like "close-out games are easy" gave the Nuggets.
A lot of people have branded Andrew as immature, or even thrown a blanket statement like "stupid" his direction. I've written about Bynum countless times and have seen probably every single game he's ever played as a Laker. How do you call a guy immature who only talks about winning? How do you label him as "having to grow up" when he's worked hard to get better every season of his career? How do you say he doesn't care when Kobe, the guy who cares more than anyone else in the league, proclaims that Andrew wants to win "just as much as anybody"? As a Laker fan, how do you make sense of this? I've thought about this long and hard, and a really good comparative situation comes to mind.
Roughly 10 years ago, a Major League Baseball player named Manny Ramirez dominated the league. Playing in the ultra-competitive AL East, Manny destroyed pitching from every angle, setting major league records, getting penciled in for All-Star games in April and ultimately, leading the once-cursed Red Sox to two world championships. Ramirez, "extra curricular" activities aside, is considered one of the top 10 right-handed hitters of all-time and by accomplishments alone (again, leave out the other...stuff), is a shoe-in Hall of Famer.
However, with Manny's production came an incredibly vexing human being. Over and over again, Manny would do and say things that frustrated Red Sox Nation and confused the sporting public. Whether it was his defensive odysseys in left field or asking the organization if he could show up late to spring training for family reasons only to be seen in Atlantic City for a car auction, Ramirez was always a puzzle. The media, fellow teammates, management, everyone searched for a rhyme or reason why Manny...was Manny. And eventually, everyone just gave up. There was no reason. It was just...Manny being Manny. He did things how he wanted, when he wanted because he thought that at the time, it was the right decision. Pretty simple.
Sound like anyone you know?
What plagued Red Sox fans for years is exactly what we're going through Laker fans. As strange and distracting as Manny's antics were, the truth was that the guy was (by all accounts) an extremely hard worker who treated hitting like a science. At the end of the day, he was a winner and a guy who worked hard on his craft. Yes, sometimes he checked out, and checked out hard (see his 2008 season before he got traded to the Los Angeles Dodgers...and then see his production after). But everyone dealt with it because that was just Manny being Manny. They won.
I don't know why Andrew does what he does and says what he says. I don't know why he parks in two handicapped spaces and delays knee surgery to trek through Europe and South Africa. I don't know why he'd prod a young, hungry Denver team with a careless statement like he did before yesterday's game.
Andrew does what he wants, when he wants, and it often leads to negative headlines. As ESPN's Arash Markazi tweeted a couple of days ago, Kobe still kind of cares what people think, although he likes to put on the facade that he's above it all. Andrew, on the other, doesn't give a crap what you think. There's no logic to his behavior pattern. I've it before and I'll say it a million more times; we're not dealing with a normal person here. Andrew is, for lack of a better term or full psychological profiling, different. He's just a different type of person. It's not immaturity (mostly). It's just that his thought process is different than everyone else's. Is that so hard to believe? Have you ever worked with anyone that just doesn't have a filter? Will just blurt out strange statements? Wears the same thing to the office every day? Yes, you have. Is that person immature? Or just different?
That's what we're dealing with in Andrew Bynum. It's Manny Ramirez, redux. Andrew is in his own head and in his own world. We're all struggling to understand someone that, quite frankly, might not even understand himself. I think we're all searching for reasons that don't exist. He's all impulse and feel, whereas we've gotten used to the cerebral nature of Phil, Kobe and Derek.
Bynum being Bynum. Let's just all get used to it. And hope it's not a problem because the Lakers are winning. It's the best anyone can do.