Bryant-Bynum bond grows in victory or defeat
DENVER – The last place the Lakers lived before Kobe shoved Shaq's shadow aside was here, the Mile High City and the 2009 Western Conference finals.
The Lakers faced a much better Denver Nuggets team than the one they currently lead, 2-1, in the first round. Those Nuggets had George Karl coaching Carmelo Anthony, Chauncey Billups, Kenyon Martin, Nene and J.R. Smith.
The Lakers survived them, then handled the Orlando Magic for Kobe Bryant's first NBA title without Shaquille O'Neal as the inside to Bryant's out. The Lakers closed out that Denver series on the Pepsi Center floor, clinching in Game 6 with Bryant posting 35 points and 10 assists.
Bynum? He had two points and one rebound that game ... and the Lakers still won by 27 points.
The Lakers are back in Denver now, depending on Bynum to be more like Kobe's Shaq than the Bynum who finished off that 2009 season, put his feet down on that champagne-soaked carpet in Orlando and pretended to throw his knee brace in a trashcan because he couldn't fathom becoming the player he dreamed of being while having to wear it.
That title marked the midpoint of Bynum's career, bookended by three early years of undeveloped wine and now three years of much fuller body of work. For every step of growth into this distinctive flavor and improved consistency, Bryant has been there.
And for all the "Coach Kobe" jokes, clocking all this time with Bynum qualifies Bryant far more than Mike Brown to tell Bynum what and what not to do.
Bynum knows it, and Bryant knows it.
Especially without Derek Fisher, more of a mentor to Bynum than most understand, Bryant has been coaching Bynum all season – and he did it again in the latest teachable moment Friday night.
Bynum reverted back to 2009, going scoreless and never aggressively establishing himself in the defensive paint or with the deep post position that allows him to score even if a hard double-team does come.
In the second half on one of the many possessions the Lakers had with the shot clock ticking down, Bryant got the ball, looked inside and saw Bynum just standing outside the lane and staring blankly back at him.
Bryant scowled, yelled and pointed at Bynum to get to work, which Bynum tried to do – too late. The Lakers didn't score, the Nuggets ran away and did at the other end, and Bryant pounded the ball to the floor in frustration.
Bynum got the message, got a three-point play off Bryant's pass on the very next possession and added another three-point play shortly thereafter. He finished with 18 points in the second half alone – also too late, though.
Bryant's bad cop having worked, he reversed field to good cop after the Game 3 loss.
"We were kind of joking about it after the game," Bryant said about Bynum's slow start. "He had a tough time getting going in the first half, but in the second half he came out and was ready to go."
Standing sleepily at 1 p.m. local time Saturday in a meeting-room hallway in the very same Denver hotel that housed the Lakers in '09, Bynum gave his critics more fodder by admitting – same as he did after a loss to JaVale McGee in Washington two months ago – that he just didn't bring his best effort.
"I took myself out," Bynum said. "Maybe just not ready to play."
Specifically, Bynum shortcut his usual individual on-court workout with assistant coach Darvin Ham before Game 3 because "I got there a little late."
The lesson? "It makes you get there and do it better next time," Bynum said.
"The first step to improving as a player is admitting yourself when you've done something wrong and how to correct that," Bryant said. "And I do the same thing, too. I just don't tell you."
After so many references early in Bynum's career about how passive he was as a preps-to-pro compared to how Bryant was, this season has seen Bryant repeatedly liken himself to Bynum.
After Game 2 Tuesday, Bryant went so far as to say: "He expects greatness out of himself."
There's little in this world that Bryant respects more.
"The All-Star break was really when our bond cemented itself," Bryant said. "Even though we were around so many of our other peers, it was just he and I. We were always around each other and we really didn't care what the other guys were doing.
"It was really about us and being in constant communication: 'What are you doing? Let's go out. Let's hang out. Let's grab some dinner.' From that point on, we've always had this chemistry."
Bryant broke his nose in the All-Star Game in Orlando and headed to the hospital while Bynum headed immediately home. Like so many whirlwind weekends, it could've ended there.
But this is no quick fling, no short-term relationship. This momentum of Bryant and Bynum together has been building for seven years and is running strong now.
It'll continue Sunday night with Game 4 in Denver, and it won't stop there.