Bump In The Road Or Cause For Concern??

By Bill Plaschke
Updated: April 28, 2009

LOS ANGELES — The most important celebrity at Staples Center on Monday night wore no baseball cap, beard stubble or attitude.

The most important celebrity at Staples Center did not have torn jeans, a pouty smile or affected swagger.

But, like the rest of them, he didn’t stroll in until the second quarter.

And, at times, it did seem as if he wasn’t really watching the game.

And, no, we’re not sure when he’s coming back.

On a night when Will Ferrell or Leonardo DiCaprio filled the room, the most important celebrity was Andrew Bynum.

Only there is no humor here, and the drama is real.

On a night the Lakers smoothly paved over their first-round series against the Utah Jazz with a 107-96 victory and a four-games-to-one clinching, there remained an unsettled rumbling.

What next?

Bynum or sell?

Waiting for Lakers in the second round is probably Yao Ming and the Houston Rockets. Waiting for them is probably an inside threat that the Jazz could only fake.

Waiting for them is the first big postseason mission for Andrew Bynum.

Who continues to keep the Lakers waiting.

On Monday, for the fifth consecutive postseason game, he stumbled and hacked and was taken out before he could hurt anybody.

In a dozen minutes he had five rebounds but zero baskets and two turnovers and an embarrassing late stretch in which he allowed the Jazz’s Paul Millsap to score nine consecutive points.

His quickest move was after the game, when he left before reporters could ask the questions that I’ll ask right now.

Has he recovered enough from this season’s knee injury to make an impact here? Are his legs strong enough? Is his focus sharp enough?

After watching him this last week, which included an early exit from a practice with knee issues, the answer would be no.

After asking other Lakers, though, the answer is, well, maybe?

“He just got back, he just got back,” said Kobe Bryant, who scored 31 to lead the Lakers on Monday. “Give him another week or so…..he’ll be fine.”

Phil Jackson took it a giant step further, even saying that Bynum was likely to return to the starting lineup.

“I just didn’t think he got comfortable playing tonight,” Jackson said. “He can certainly give us minutes against [Houston or Portland]. I would put him right back in the start of the game.”

Really? Jackson is known for seeing something that others are missing, so maybe that makes sense.

The only thing beyond debate is that the four strong games Bynum played at the end of the regular season — after missing the previous 32 with the injury — were a head fake.

Those games lacked playoff intensity. Those games lacked playoff officiating.

These games are different, these games are real, and Bynum has not been real good, and it really shouldn’t be surprising.

Lamar Odom, who has flourished while starting for Bynum in the last two games, said the issue is obvious.

“He missed 32 games,” he said emphatically. “We just have to get him back into it. We have to push him emotionally and push him physically.”

This time of year, it’s either push or be pushed, as Pau Gasol confirmed. Essentially trying to rehabilitate a busted knee while everyone else is busting heads isn’t easy, especially for a guy in his first extended postseason.

“In the playoffs, the intensity is different, the energy is different, the officiating is different, you just have to get used to it,” said Gasol. “It takes a while.”

And it can’t happen on the bench, which is where Bynum spent much of the last three games of the series, even joking there with the struggling Jordan Farmar on Monday, which is certainly symbolic of something.

Yep, Bynum finished a far distance from the starting lineup in which he began these playoffs.

But game by game, it became apparent that something was wrong. Either he couldn’t stay out of foul trouble, or he couldn’t stay in the moment, and finally Jackson just couldn’t trust him.

He had 15 rebounds the entire series. He made nine baskets the entire series. He averaged one foul about every five minutes.

I’m surprised Jackson didn’t try to give Bynum more needed minutes in a couple of the blowout Lakers wins. But then again, after what happened Monday, maybe I’m not.

He entered the game at the start of the second quarter, and was immediately tied up by Ronnie Brewer, a guy whom Bynum outweighs by 50 pounds.

At least Bynum won the jump ball.

For the next six minutes, he seemed equally bewildered and off-balance while trying to guard Millsap.

In nearly six minutes, before being pulled, he grabbed only one rebound, and blocked one shot.

He then disappeared until the start of the fourth quarter, when he stepped back on to the court and almost immediately fouled Millsap. A few minutes later he fouled Millsap again, and it’s probably no coincidence that on the ensuing trip down the floor, Bynum backed off Millsap and watched him score.

Seconds later, Millsap broke free on a fastbreak and scored again, and soon the Jazz had cut a 22-point lead to six points before the Lakers starters returned to the floor to calm things and clinch the win.

If the Lakers had blown this game, the onus would have been on Bynum. Yet with only practices on the schedule in the coming week, is there any way that he can get into strong enough playoff-playing shape to make sure this doesn’t happen again?

The Lakers reached the NBA Finals last year without him, and against a clearly depleted Western Conference there seems little doubt they don’t need him to get that far again.

But the kind of Lakers team that shows up in the NBA Finals depends on the kind of toughness and presence that Bynum can give them before then.

Yet after one series, the most important celebrity in the Staples Center on Monday night could only be described with the most infamous celebrity announcement.

Andrew Bynum has left the building.