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Sizing up the Lakers' 5-1 trip

December 21, 2010 |  8:11 am

The Lakers (21-7) compiled the wins. Forget for a second what five wins against sub-.500 opponents really does from a development standpoint. The Lakers at least received the tangible results needed to stay within striking distance of San Antonio (24-3) and Dallas (22-5) for the top spot in the Western Conference. Regardless of the opponent, the Lakers also have more road experience (11-5) than both the Spurs (10) and Mavericks. In fact, only the Minnesota Timberwolves played fewer home games than the Lakers, which played 12.

Some may point out this was actually a seven-game trip considering the Lakers played a road game against the Clippers. Not in my book since it didn't require actual travel.

Andrew Bynum finally returns The Lakers are still keeping a close eye on Bynum's surgically repaired right knee. Both Bynum and Lakers Coach Phil Jackson agree he's nowhere near the game shape needed to crack the starting lineup and gobble the 30-35 minutes the team wants him to absorb. There's also cautious but optimistic concerns regarding Bynum's revelation that his right knee has felt sore since the Lakers' 120-110 victory Sunday over the Toronto Raptors. But his return last week against Washington couldn't have come too soon.

In four games, he's averaged 7.3 points in 16.5 minutes per game, allowing Pau Gasol to average 34.5 minutes, a stark contrast to the 40-plus minutes he compiled in 15 games before Bynum's return. So even if his four-game stint featured some limitations, such as a three-point outing against Philadelphia in which he missed four of five shots in 13 minutes, it also featured signs of growth, such as his 16-point performance on four of six shooting and 18 rebounds against Toronto. It's well known Bynum is a slow healer, but he's at least making incremental progress and is already easing the rest of the frontline's burden.

The Lakers managed to ease their finances. Guard Derek Fisher joked after Monday's practice that it seems that every significant trip entails the Lakers making a trade. In the 2007-08 season, the Lakers, during a nine-game trip, acquired Pau Gasol in exchange for Kwame Brown, Aaron McKie, Javaris Crittenton, two first-round picks and the rights to Marc Gasol, whom the Lakers drafted with a second-round pick in 2007. In the 2008-09 season, the Lakers during a six-game trip traded Vladimir Radmanovic for Adam Morrison and Shannon Brown. And in the middle of the Lakers' six-game trip this season, the Lakers finalized a three-team trade that sent Lakers guard Sasha Vujacic to the New Jersey Nets for forward/center Joe Smith.

The move helps the Lakers on several fronts. It helps them financially, considering Vujacic is making $5.5 million in the last season of a three-year, $15-million contract he signed in 2008 with the Lakers, while Smith's salary is $1.4 million this season. It also helps them with the team's personnel, considering the Lakers had trouble absorbing Andrew Bynum's absence because of Theo Ratliff's continual rehab on his surgically repaired left knee, Gasol's fatigue and Derrick Caracter's inexperience. Even though Bynum returned to the lineup, his recovery always seems fleeting at best. So it's comforting the Lakers added a reliable big man to eat up minutes if needed. Credit Lakers General Manager Mitch Kupchak for pulling off that move without having to drain the team's finances.

The bench play proved reliable. The Lakers have mostly just asked the bench to secure leads and give the starters some rest. But in several instances this season, including the last trip, they've surpassed that expectation. After the Lakers nearly allowed a 16-point lead to slip away against Toronto, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson yanked three of his starters in favor of his reserve unit. The result: The bench scored nearly half the team's points, including 57 points, 24 rebounds and eight assists. The Lakers had seen this script play out in other instances. With Kobe Bryant limited because of a sprained pinkie on his right hand against Philadelphia, the Lakers' bench played an instrumental role in securing the victory, with Lamar Odom, Steve Blake and Matt Barnes accounting for the Lakers' first 25 fourth-quarter points.

Kobe Bryant found various ways to be effective. It's fitting, although not surprising, that Bryant would show in the Lakers' win against Toronto that his sprained right pinkie would do little to keep him out of the lineup. But his 20-point performance on six of 12 shooting showed his ability to adjust based on the game's circumstances. Against Philadelphia, he gladly took a back seat, using his three of 11 clip and injured pinkie as an opportunity to exploit the 76ers' lacking double teams on Gasol (19 points, 13 rebounds) and Odom (season-high 28 points on 11 of 18 shooting) and the reserves providing the necessary energy to fill the production. Against Indiana, he spent the first half playing facilitator and recording six assists and the second half playing scorer with 25 points. Against Washington, he carried the Lakers by recording 16 of his 24 points in the third quarter. And against New Jersey, he zinged the Lakers with their poor effort after carrying them with a 32-point performance.

--Mark Medina