Lakers' injury list exacerbates concerns over play following 102-93 victory over San Antonio Spurs
Folding his arms across his knees and burying his head down, Lakers center Andrew Bynum sat on the court.
He had just lost his balance while trying to track down San Antonio Spurs forward DeJuan Blair, a sequence that caused his left knee to slip underneath him. Bynum then grabbed his right knee, a discomforting visual for any Lakers fan, considering Bynum's well-documented injury history. But Bynum stood up and walked off the court as Lakers forward Pau Gasol patted him on the head. Soon enough, Bynum walked toward the locker room with trainer Gary Vitti following.
The Lakers' 102-93 victory Tuesday over the Spurs at Staples Center gives them a clearer look at the playoff picture, considering that L.A. can secure the No. 2 seed with a victory Wednesday at Sacramento and/or a Dallas Mavericks loss Wednesday against the New Orleans Hornets. But here's something that even has bigger implications: An unhealthy Bynum will severely dampen the Lakers' hopes to three-peat. Of course, the Lakers will have a better idea about the severity of Bynum's injury once he receives an MRI Wednesday, skipping the team's flight to Sacramento. But given Bynum's injury history, it's more realistic to expect a prolonged absence than a short one, even if he insists otherwise.
"It's not really that bad," Bynum said while walking down a Staples Center hallway after the game. "It was painful right when it happened, but it's not that bad right now."
Even so, Lakers Coach Phil Jackson anticipated Bynum missing a couple of games, pointing out the possibility that the injury could be a bone bruise and revealing the center had swelling around his knee. Bynum's injury is just a string of bizarre events that took place before the Lakers-Spurs game even began. Lakers backup forward Matt Barnes missed the game because of increased pain in his right knee that flared up prior to morning shootaround, an injury that limited him during that session. He doesn't have a timetable for his return but said in a brief moment in a Staples Center hallway that the problem will prevent him from flying with the team to Sacramento. Lakers backup guard Steve Blake remained sidelined because of chicken pox, an illness the team learned about prior to morning shootaround. His wife, Kristen Blake, wrote via Twitter, "my kids [three sons] didn't give it to him. They were vaccinated and are healthy. No clue where or how Steve got chicken pox."
Bynum, Ron Artest and Kobe Bryant never had chicken pox, and it isn't clear whether they have had vaccines for the illness, but Bynum was the only one who confirmed that fact to reporters. Artest said he had the illness when he "was a baby," and Bryant smiled while dropping an expletive when asked if he's already had chicken pox. To stave off all the absences, the Lakers added Trey Johnson and Derrick Caracter from the Bakersfield Jam.
Either way, all the unforeseen adversities add further anxiety to a team that technically ended its five-game losing streak but exhibited the same horrific play. That included Bryant's eight-for-21 clip and 15th technical foul, modest efforts from Artest (seven points, one-for-two shooting), Shannon Brown (four-for-11 shooting), Luke Walton (two points, four fouls), Joe Smith (zero points in 4:33) and Theo Ratliff (zero points in 1:30 of play), showing the Lakers' health concerns better be solved quickly. After all, it required Lamar Odom to overcome a one-for-seven first-half performance by finishing with 23 points on nine-for-18 shooting to put away a team that sat out its top three stars, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker.
"We're going to have the adversities and struggles," said Lakers guard Derek Fisher. "We just have to make sure we remain focused on the positive that's going on in this locker room."
Fisher's positive outlook may be the approach the Lakers need during their latest trials. Team members repeatedly echoed the observation that Bynum seemed fine and could tough out the injury, considering that he provided a valuable inside presence in the 2010 NBA playoffs despite constant pain and swelling surrounding a lateral meniscus tear on his right knee. But realistically, recent events further illustrate that the Lakers' lackadaisical play is hurting them beyond playoff seedings.
Had they maintained their sharp play during their 17-1 run following the All-Star break instead of allowing complacency to contribute to a five-game losing streak, the Lakers could have avoided many of the problems they are facing. It's conceivable that they could have rested or at least limited starters' minutes had they had a secure playoff spot, but the Lakers' need for Bynum's presence exposed him to further injury. Additionally, securing home-court advantage would have at least mitigated uncontrollable problems, such as injuries, a luxury that became a distant dream with each loss.
"There's always concern when you see him go down a couple times," Jackson said of Bynum. "There's concern. It was a freaky play."
Odom and Walton shrugged off what they said is an overreaction among fans and media, with Walton even saying that he had to calm down a overly concerned Lakers fan he met while running errands. But Walton's disclosure that the Lakers recently had a players-only meeting validates the concern that the team has have plenty of issues to fix for the playoffs.
"We talked about how in the playoffs if you all of a sudden drop two or three straight, your season is over," Walton said. We're aware of everything that's going on. We have a great team [that] knows what it needs to do to win. The fans have the right to worry, but our team isn't like that at all right now."
That changed with Bynum's injury. Gasol, Brown, Fisher and Jackson all acknowledged feeling anxious when the center fell down, knowing that he missed 46 games in the 2007-08 season because of a left-knee injury, remained sidelined for 32 games in the 2008-09 campaign because of a right-knee injury, sat for 13 games last season because of a strained left Achilles' tendon and missed the first 25 games this season while recovering from offseason surgery on his right knee, the same knee he hurt against the Spurs. Likewise, the Lakers immediately tried to figure out who was vaccinated after hearing about Blake's chicken pox. For example, Brown initially wondered if he would get sick after shaking Blake's hand during Monday's practice, even though he says he had the illness when he was a child.
It remains to be seen whether the Lakers' confident aura will carry them through once again, or if it is simply an example of denial. It all depends on how quickly they can elevate their play, how severe the injuries become and whether playoff opponents will be ready to combat the Lakers' experience and talent. One thing is for sure: The quest to three-peat won't be easy.
"We're all veterans here, and we understand it's part of the sport," Gasol said. "We'll be focused on what we need to do, regardless."
-- Mark Medina
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Photo: Andrew Bynum grimaces after injuring his right knee during the Lakers' 102-93 victory Tuesday over the San Antonio Spurs at Staples Center. Credit: Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times