The Lakers’ New Difference Maker

By Mark Heisler
Updated: January 26, 2009

LOS ANGELES — Which rivalry was that, again?

The West race didn’t actually end Sunday, because nothing ends at this time of year, except the NFL season.

On the other hand, at this point there is no race in the West to end, with the San Antonio Spurs, the No. 2 team, hanging on by their wiles.

Of course, with newly acquired Roger Mason and George Hill, the Spurs may be only one player away, if he’s as big as, as athletic as and has the defensive presence of . . .

Andrew Bynum.

If Lakers fans want to imagine something horrific, think what the Spurs would look like with your ‘Drew, even if he started as slowly, and caught as much flak, as he has here.

Unfortunately for the Spurs, the wrong rival got the 21-year-old, sky-is-the-limit 7-footer, so now they’re really going to have to think up something.

“Well, it’s a hell of a team,” said a somber Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich after the Lakers flattened his team, running up a 21-point lead and coasting to a 99-85 victory.

“It’s going to be a hell of team for a long time. They’re young, athletic, long, deep, inside game, outside game. It’s a hell of a squad.”

If the Lakers haven’t been awesome, it has to do with their complicated new defense, their, uh, patient approach, and one other thing — the time it has taken Bynum to come online.

The most impressive thing about their 35-8 record is that they’ve done it with a minimal Bynum, coming off surgery, eager to justify his new $57-million deal and dismayed to find he had fallen from the No. 2 option on offense last season to No. 4, 5 or 6.

On a per-minute basis, that 7.6-rebound average Bynum took into last week’s breakout game against the Clippers was worse than the 5.9 a game he took in 22 minutes in his second season, when he was 19.

So, Bynum had either A) forgotten how to play, or B) had some things to sort out, mentally and physically.

Happily for the Lakers, the answer was B.

The amazing thing about Bynum, the chunkball who played the equivalent of one varsity season in high school, is his ability to make constructive use of criticism, no matter how pointed, be it one of Phil Jackson’s jibes, or Kobe Bryant’s famous rant.

No Lakers official, not Ronnie Lester, who scouted Bynum, or Mitch Kupchak, who drafted him, ever projected him to be where he is now, if he ever got there.

The Lakers never coddled Bynum. On the contrary, it was tough love when he arrived and it is, still.

Yet, here he is.

“I don’t know if there’s any job in the world, once you take that step up to the big boys, they’re still going to treat you like a little boy,” said guard Derek Fisher.

“I think Andrew’s growing into what is going to turn out to be a really big boy.

“I think everybody can be real excited about what’s to come in the future.”

Well, everyone around here can be real excited, anyway.

The big, young, deep, athletic Lakers aren’t just the Spurs’ worst nightmare, but the whole league’s.

Popovich didn’t mention it, but the Lakers also have this superstar, who won the MVP award last season and ranks as the game’s best closer.

For perspective, imagine what the Cleveland Cavaliers would look like if LeBron James played alongside Bynum and Pau Gasol.

Bryant played only 32 minutes Sunday, leaving for good with 1:17 left in the third quarter.

Bynum left at the same time, going only 24 minutes, making his 15 points, 11 rebounds and four blocks while holding Tim Duncan to 15-8 and getting him in foul trouble, rather than the other way around, which is even more impressive.

With Jordan Farmar’s return galvanizing the second unit, you wouldn’t have liked the view from the Spurs’ bench as Sunday’s game went on.

Popovich didn’t even put his starters back in in the fourth quarter, which the Spurs started trailing, 79-66.

“It’s a long season,” Popovich said. “We weren’t going to win that game.”

Before the game even started, Jackson said he was “very happy” with the way the season had gone.

Asked whether he had specific concerns, he couldn’t come up with a single one.

“You know, now that it looks like our bench is coming back and we’ll have a full retinue of players, I really don’t,” the Lakers’ coach said.

“At one time, it looked like heavy minutes were going to be a concern. . . . Now that our bench is coming back, it looks like we can monitor the minutes of Fisher and Kobe, some of our heavy-minute guys. We’ll be fine.”

Of course, it’s just January, as ready as the Lakers are for it to be later.