The Los Angeles Lakers picked up a great win yesterday, coming from behind to beat the Boston Celtics 90-89, with the final points of the game coming on a clutch jumper from Kobe Bryant, but that obviously doesn't tell the whole story. This was a game of runs, and fortunately for us, the Lakers took the last leg. But, yesterday's result does provide the coaching staff with a dilemma: Which bigs should be on the floor to close out a game?
With 5:50 remaining in the game, the Lakers were down 78-84. They had been chipping at Boston's lead slowly for the entire quarter. It was at this point that Andrew Bynum replaced Pau Gasol on the floor. That's not unusual, as Pau had played 41 out of 42 minutes up to that point. He needed a rest. The unusual part? Pau didn't return to the game until there were 27 seconds left and the Lakers had the ball, down 1. Bynum has often been the odd man out when it comes to finishing close games, with Phil Jackson usually preferring a lineup including Lamar Odom and Pau Gasol. Bynum has been clamoring for crunch time minutes, and he couldn't have asked for a bigger stage on which to be given those minutes.
He did not disappoint, though I certainly can't say he was the difference maker either. I re-watched that portion of the game, with the intention of focusing purely on what Bynum was doing. His numbers during that stretch were not particularly impressive. He had only one rebound by my count, the offensive board and failed put back that led to Shannon Brown's putback throw down, but the Lakers only gave up one offensive rebound over that stretch (off the backboard camera no less) so he can't be blamed for that. He only scored two points on 1-2 shooting, but those two points did come on a gorgeous turnaround fadeaway, and despite strong defense from Kendrick Perkins.
And we already know the kid can score. At just 22, he's one of the most polished low post players in the league. What has presumably kept him out of PJ's end game is defense. On defense, he did a very good job of staying active. He didn't block, or even contest, any shots, but he was roaming the paint like the biggest free safety in the history of the world, and it seemed to work. The ball only came in his direction only twice. The first was on a Paul Pierce screen, and Bynum did a very good job of staying with him, forcing Pierce to bail out to Rondo at the top of the key. The second, he was forced to recover late as Kendrick Perkins was about to dunk, and he took a hard foul to send Perkins to the line instead. Perkins went 1-2, so it was a very good foul. There's not much to read into, but perhaps we can read into that in an of itself. Boston clearly didn't think of Bynum as an advantage to be exploited. They only ran Bynum through pick and rolls twice, and he did about as well as he could with them both times. They rarely took the ball into the paint.
How much can we read into this performance? On the one hand, Bynum's performance certainly didn't jump off the page, but on the other hand, he didn't try to do too much either. He didn't play game changing defense, but I think you have to take his performance from the context of the team's overall performance, and while he was on the floor, the Lakers outscored Boston 10-5, in over 5 minutes of action. Whether he played a major role in it or not, Bynum was certainly on the court as the Lakers team made the most important run of the game.
What Bynum did show is that he's capable of performing in the crunch. I don't know whether it was ever in question or not, but if so, that question has been answered. The question that remains is: Can he perform better in the crunch than our other bigs? No matter how well he plays, there's no guarantee that he'll play at the end of the game, because he's fighting for time with two extremely high quality big men.
Each of the three big men has their own set of strengths and weaknesses. Lamar is almost certainly the best defender of the three, especially on the pick and roll. Bynum is the most intimidating of the three, and the best shot blocker, though we all know he's capable of being much better in both of those categories than he actually is. He's also the biggest and strongest of the 3. Gasol is a mixture of both, nimble and quick-footed, with good size, but lacking strength. Both Gasol and Bynum have the edge on Lamar offensively, but Lamar spaces the floor better than both, which may be more in tune with what the Lakers want to do at the end of games.
Personally, I don't see Lamar being taken off the court in end game situations. He's the most active defender, the best pick and roll defender, and the only area the Lakers game might suffer with him on the court is offensively. And, despite Bynum's good performance yesterday, it's hard to justify the idea that he should play over Gasol except in certain situations where we need his muscle more than Gasol's grace. I don't know why he played till the end. Maybe Boston is one of the aforementioned teams where strength is a very valuable commodity. Maybe PJ just wanted to reward Bynum for a strong game. Maybe he wanted to experiment with a new end game lineup. Maybe Gasol was gassed after playing so many minutes already. Whatever it was, it's very good to know that if we do need him, Bynum can be every bit as effective in end game situations as he is the rest of the time. There are no wrong answers to the question, only varying degrees of right. It's a conundrum that 29 other teams wish they had to solve.