Andrew Bynum's left Achilles strain dominates discussion after Lakers' 104-96 victory over Minnesota Timberwolves
The image of Lakers center Andrew Bynum slightly limping his way toward the locker room served as the latest visual Lakers fans remember all too well.
He had missed 46 games in the 2007-08 season because of a left-knee injury. He remained sidelined for 32 games last season because of a right-knee injury. And now this. Bynum strained his left Achilles' tendon while running down early in the third quarter Friday against Minnesota. With only 10:09 remaining in the period, Bynum left the court and went to the locker room to have his injury iced. Lakers forward Pau Gasol acknowledged the team couldn't help but feel a hint of devastation as Bynum walked toward the Staples Center tunnel.
"For a second it is because you feel bad and you're worried," Gasol said when asked if the team felt demoralized. "You're concerned about your teammate. When you see a teammate walking out of the floor and going to the locker room, you notice that there's something wrong and something bad happened."
There was another bad thing that almost happened. Bynum's 11 points and five rebounds in 20 minutes beforehand had helped give the team a double-digit lead for most of the first half. As soon as he left, the Lakers held a seven-point advantage only to see the Timberwolves take a two-point lead with 4:30 remaining in the quarter.
The Lakers (51-18) ultimately took the game with a 104-96 victory over Minnesota. The win marked the team's fifth consecutive victory and officially granted the Lakers a playoff spot. But that was correctly overshadowed by Bynum's injury. Although there is no definitive timetable and will be evaluated at Saturday's practice, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson said Bynum will "probably miss a little while." Bad timing, considering Bynum had averaged 15.9 points, 9.4 rebounds and 1.8 blocks on 56.8% shooting this month, including a four-game stretch where he posted 20 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.0 blocks on a clip at 63.3%. Bynum, his teammates and Jackson this week had frequently talked about his resgurgent play, most recently Friday in Jackson's pre-game press conference where he said Bynum will become an All-Star center if he stays healthy. Another topic involved one I mentioned to Jackson on whether Bynum had learned to overcome the psychological component of worrying about his injury history.
"Just going to Memphis to play a game in January was a concern for Andrew. He had a six-point night or something like that," Jackson said. "He's carried the injuries he's had against Memphis the last two seasons with him on that road trip. Even though one was at home and the other one was in Memphis, they both happened in January. It was a mindset. He had to overcome just that thought or that suspicion that hit him. I think he's pretty clear with that now."
With Bynum's latest injury, it's unclear whether that fear has emerged. He was not in the locker room when I arrived following Jackson's post-game press conference. But the Lakers will soon find out whether they can psychologically and tangibly absorb Bynum's injury for however long he'll be sidelined.
"The guys on this team have played together for a while so that's not a problem," said Lakers guard Kobe Bryant. "You just want to make sure that guys stay healthy and stay in tune with what we're doing."
The reactions from Jackson and his players presented an interesting dichotomy. Even though Jackson anticipate Bynum having a long-term absence, Jackson didn't sound too concerned. "We really know how to play without Andrew," he said.
There's plenty of examples to illustrate that. Barely five minutes into a game last season against the Memphis Grizzlies, Bryant collided with Bynum, who immediately yelled, pounding the court with his fist as he stayed down for about two minutes. Bynum sprained his right knee, an injury that ultimately sidelined him for 32 games. Yet, the Lakers were able to go 4-0 without Bynum the remainder of the trip. It featured an offense that included at least three players scoring double digits in those four games. And against Memphis, the Lakers responded to a six-point half-time deficit with 36 third-quarter points. Then there's of course the Lakers winning the 2009 championship without Bynum as well.
But unlike Jackson, Gasol and Lakers forward Lamar Odom wanted no part of thinking that far ahead.
"I don't really want to think about that," Gasol said. "It'll be hard to miss Andrew for any period of time. He had been playing really well too.""Hopefully he'll be all right," Odom said. "Injuries are part of being a sportsmen. Hopefully it's nothing serious."
And as far as the game itself, Jackson and Gasol/Odom disagreed on the effort there as well. Unlike Gasol's assertion, Jackson said Bynum's injury didn't hinder the team's play. Instead, Jackson ticked off items such as forcing the issue, Gasol's tonsilitis, Derek Fisher's injury in the "groin/hip area" that Jackson said contributed to his 16 minutes on zero of six shooting, Odom's shoulder injury and the team's mark of 41.5% from the field.
"It was hard for us to stay focused tonight," Jackson said. "I felt like we were distracted by a variety of things."
When asked if he saw any distractions like Jackson did, Odom suggested the assertion was part of the Zen Master's plan.
"Nothing. He's just throwing you guys off. There were no distractions tonight."
"So are you getting us back on track?," I asked.
"Yeah," Odom said chuckling. "We didn't have any distractions."
Regardless of the reason, the Lakers didn't play their best basketball. Minnesota (14-56) remained in contention until the fourth quarter, but the double-digit lead wasn't warranted enough for the starters to rest. That's something that should've been accomplished particularly with the team's upcoming five-game trip. The Lakers allowed Minnesota to score 58 points in the paint, 21 second-chance points and center Darko Milicic to score a season-high 16 points and tie a season-high 12 rebounds.
Still, especially with Bynum's possible absence, there were some encouraging signs. Four starters in Kobe Bryant (22 points) Gasol (17), Bynum (11) and Ron Artest (10) cracked double figures. The bench scored 42 points, led by Odom (18) and Jordan Farmar (12). Bryant's season-high 13 assists contributed to a continuously effective inside game and played to everyone's strengths, a necessary quality for the team to have with Bynum's status in question.
"If some of those guys hit their shots, he would've had 20 assists instead of 13," Jackson said. "It's always a good sight and good energy for the team. I like it that it's out of the context of the offense. Sometimes he gets carried away out there and doesn't do it within the context of the offense."
Regardless, some of the distractions Jackson cited shouldn't appear to be an issue. Those areas include Gasol's assessment on his tonsilitis: "I'm still fighting through it. But I definitely feel well physically and ready to face this last part of the season." It involves Odom's evaluation on his shoulder: "It's good. If it was hurt, I wouldn't share it with you. It's nothing against you." And it surrounds Jackson's take on Fisher's injury: "He's going to be all right."
And as far as whether Bynum's injury would serve as a distraction? Gasol says the team will address it if the time comes.
"I'm really upset," Gasol said. :Hopefully it won't be anything and if he's out, it'll only take a couple games. We need him back."
Credit: Lakers center Andrew Bynum is called for a blocking foul as he tries to cut off the drive of Timberwolves guard Wayne Ellington in the first half Friday night. Photo: Gina Ferazzi/Los Angeles Times.