The Lakers were once again favorites to win the title. For the first time since 2004, the basketball world knew the title went through Los Angeles. But a whole season perspective can change in an instant. The Lakers found that out Jan. 31.
That’s when their 7-foot big man went down with a right knee injury for the second consecutive season. Andrew Bynum, who last season went down with a left knee injury and missed the rest of the season, fell victim to a torn MCL and is projected to miss 8-12 weeks. Whether he will be back in time for the playoffs remains to be known, but if not, the Lakers will not win a championship… or at least that’s what the media is saying.
There’s no question amongst NBA analysts that the Lakers can make it back to the finals. But there is a lot of doubt whether the Lakers can actually win once they get there. It seems to be a valid argument; after all, the Celtics in the finals did manhandle the Lakers. The Lakers showed no inside toughness as the Celtics decided to make the series a big lay-up drill. Pau Gasol was not able to hold down the inside for the Lakers as Kendrick Perkins and Kevin Garnett continuously pounded him inside, and resulted in the nickname “Gasoft.”
Why should any of that matter now? It’s a new season, which means more experience for a team that stayed intact for the exception of Ronny Turiaf. The Celtics lost a key player in James Posey. The Cavaliers look poised to make a run, but can Lebron exorcise the demons of his last finals appearance against the Spurs? How can someone count out Kobe Bryant, arguably the best player in the world? Count out Phil Jackson, who is tied with Red Auerbach with nine NBA titles?
Last time I checked, basketball is team sport. Bynum does make a huge difference, but the Lakers are hungrier then last season and looking to prove a point. Of course, the defense will take a hit without Bynum in the middle, that’s obvious. What’s not obvious is that the Lakers cannot win the title without Bynum in the middle.
"I think having Andrew in the lineup makes us a very dominant team. With him out of the lineup, we're still a great team, but you put him in the mix and it takes us to another level," Bryant said.
Going into Thursday’s game against the Celtics, the Lakers were again without Andrew Bynum. The last time the Lakers were in Boston without their young center the Lakers walked off the court with green and gold streamers and confetti falling from the rafters after being embarrassed 131-92.
Think again. The Lakers showed that they could match the intensity of the Celtics this time around. It was typical Lakers-Celtics. Rajon Rondo and Kobe Bryant getting into a heated exchange. Lamar Odom and Kevin Garnett standing toe to toe. An overtime game. A controversial ending. And for the second time this season, a Lakers win and another Celtics winning streak snapped.
Still, the Lakers know it’s one game. And they know it doesn’t make up for what happened last season.
"I won't lie to you," Luke Walton said. "This one was big. It was real big. We all remember what it felt like and while this still doesn't make up for it, it's still nice."
The Lakers face a more difficult challenge in their quest for a title. They have 33 games left, with 19 of those coming on the road. They are currently on one of the most challenging road trips this season. When Bynum went down on the second game of the trip, it had all the makings to become a nightmare. The Lakers have met that challenge thus far, going 5-0 with the Lakers finishing their road trip Sunday against the Cavaliers, who are 23-0 at home this season.
So for the doubters that want to count the Lakers out because they are the same team from last year… go right ahead. The Spurs, Cavaliers, Celtics, Magic, and Nuggets are in the running for the title and look to challenge the Lakers. But there is a big difference this year that was made known in Boston on Thursday. The 2009 Lakers will not back down from a challenge, and most importantly, they will fight back. And if the other 29 teams don’t realize that, the Lakers will gladly fly under the radar.
Because come June, the Lakers will have something to say to all the doubters, in the form of raising the Larry O’Brien trophy.
Kobe Bryant quote – espn.com (Kobe Bryant: We can win title without Andrew Bynum)
Luke Walton quote – foxsports.com (Lakers beat Celtics, exorcise Boston Demons)