When Houston’s Aaron Brooks drove into the lane at the start of game seven, Andrew Bynum was waiting for him. The Andrew Bynum Lakers fans remember from the first half of the season, the one they have been hoping to see again. The one that changes games with shot blocking and defense.
“There’s not going to be any little guards running through the lane,” Bynum noted after game seven.
Bynum completely changes the matchups on the inside to the Lakers favor. Denver’s Brazilian center Nene would have to guard Bynum and while he is athletic, runs the floor well and plays hard, he has struggled in the past with Bynum’s length.
More importantly, Bynum in the game forces Kenyon Martin to cover Pau Gasol. Conventional wisdom is that the physical Martin should push around the “soft” Spaniard, although Gasol averaged 18.3 points and 12.2 rebounds per games in the team’s meetings this year. He has not slowed Gasol at all.
So far in the playoffs, Denver has looked like a good interior defensive team — but they’ve done it against the powerhouse scoring centers that are Tyson Chandler and Eric Dampier. Bynum is not those guys, he actually has more post moves than Dwight Howard. Which is to say he has one.
The hard part for Denver will be playing without fouling — the Rockets did a great job of that against the Lakers, but the Rockets were second during the season in the ratio of fewest free throws to field goal attempts. They simply don’t foul, it’s part of their defensive system.
The Nuggets hack. They were 25th in the league in that same ratio. And if Martin can’t stop Gasol without fouling — or if he does something he’s prone to do and send a hard “message” foul — the Nuggets will struggle because they lack the depth along the front line. Chris “Birdman” Anderson is a legitimate backup inside but after that guys like Linas Kleiza in that role.
If Bynum returns to his ineffective self, the Lakers would need to go with a front line of Lamar Odom and Gasol, and that plays much more the Denver’s liking. Martin has the speed and strength to hold off Odom, and Nene’s athleticism can stall Gasol.
The Nuggets certainly have other issues — like how to stop Kobe Bryant, who abused them in the regular season, and how to get Carmelo Anthony going when he has struggled against the Lakers — while the Lakers have issues of their own, like after getting torched by Brooks can they slow the much better (albeit not as fast) Chauncey Billups.
But in the end, this series will likely be won in the paint. And with the good Bynum, the Lakers have a good chance.