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Bill Plaschke

Lakers' Lamar Odom finally puts the spotlight on himself

With Bynum out and Kobe sick, Odom decides to not play a backup role and takes control of the game.

February 09, 2009|BILL PLASCHKE

FROM CLEVELAND — Of all the noise that rocked the rafters of the NBA's last unbeaten arena Sunday, nothing was more compelling than the sounds coming from a tiny room off a narrow tunnel.

It was Kobe Bryant, vomiting.

"I heard that when I walked into the locker room," said Lamar Odom. "I was like, 'OK, this is about me.' "

This is about me?

Lamar Odom says that kind of thing about as often as he grows hair.

It's never about him. Even when the Lakers have begged it to be about him, it's never about him.

It's about teammates to whom he gently deferred when moving to the bench. It's about his late son, whose face is sadly tattooed on his back.

It's about losing himself in the flow of others, disappearing in the drama of the moment, dissolving his ego in the search for his elusive championship, 6 feet 10 and darn near invisible.

"He's even in a contract year and he's acting like that," said Jordan Farmar. "We notice it and, in a lot of ways, we really admire it."

Then, Sunday, against a possible Finals opponent in an impossibly difficult gym, Lamar Odom realized he was needed to be somebody else.

Somebody selfish. Somebody angry. Somebody great.

"With Kobe sick, I thought only one thing," Odom said. "First time I got the ball, I had to go to the hole. And I had to keep going to the hole."

Today, it is the suddenly vulnerable Cleveland Cavaliers who are in that hole, while it is Odom who is climbing out of it after having his most important game in five disillusioning Lakers seasons.

The former lightweight stomped across the Quicken Loans Arena court for 28 points and 17 rebounds as the Cavaliers' 23-game home winning streak collapsed under his tonnage.

The final score was 101-91, and, after several hours of hearty Midwestern cheers, the final sounds were silence.

Odom silently hugging Pau Gasol for the longest moments after the buzzer.

Coach Phil Jackson standing silently when asked about the last time he had seen such production from Odom.

Odom silently dressing with his back to dozens of reporters who couldn't believe what they had just witnessed on the court.

When he finally turned around to talk, somewhat surprisingly, the impeccably dressed Odom had not buttoned his shirt or tied his tie.

"In honor of this blue-collar city, I will talk with an open collar," he said with a grin.

As in their victory three days earlier in Boston, it was the Lakers who pounded the nails and wrenched the pipes.

With Bryant staggering from flu-like symptoms, with Andrew Bynum out until the end of the season, with the Cavaliers leading by 10 points at halftime, the day looked beyond repair.

But then Odom had a double-double in the third quarter, the Lakers defense shoved LeBron James from here to Akron, the Cavs shot only 28% in the second half, the Lakers amazingly outscored the Cavs 62-24 in the paint, and, well, let Farmar finish it.

"After today, we know destiny is in our hands," he said. "Phil [Jackson] said only one team can beat us, and that's ourselves, and we believe him."

They're not the only ones.

When Bynum was injured at the start of this six-game trip, I thought the Lakers were not tough enough to win an NBA championship without him.

Now, after watching them go 6-0 on the trip with victories in the homes of the two best teams in the Eastern Conference, I am having serious doubts about my doubts.

They are, at present, clearly the best team in the NBA. If they don't suffer from further injury or inattention, they should remain that way from now through June.

When they beat Boston in Thursday's dramatic overtime brawl, some thought, well, fine, but the new power is the Cavaliers.

Yet on Sunday, they promptly handled everything that is, or was, Cleveland.

James throwing chalk dust into the air and posing with arms raised for the roaring crowd before the game? He missed 15 of 20 shots.

A giant scoreboard that showed Ohio State Coach Jim Tressel urging the crowd to "rock and roll"? By the end of the game, it was quietly showing only the upcoming schedule.

They call the place "Loudville," but for most of the second half, it was "Lousyville," with fans openly grumbling, even booing, as they buttoned up and left early to their first home loss of the season.

"This is the kind of thing that matters later," Odom said.

Will Odom be this same Odom later? Lakers fans can only hope.

Said Farmar: "Tonight you saw what happened when he was unleashed, given the green light, allowed to do what he does best."

Said Odom: "It's all about minutes. When you play longer, you can get in the flow and put up better numbers. Look at the quarterback for New England. Nobody knew Matt Cassel would be a great quarterback until he got a chance to play."

With Cassel coming off the bench to show his greatness during a contract season, he is similar to Odom. The toughness Odom showed Sunday, it's as if even their sports are the same.

At one point in the third quarter, Odom had three consecutive bruising layups. At the end of the quarter, he had consecutive offensive rebounds and baskets that included a quarter-ending dunk and scream.

"It's how you finish in this league," Odom said. "I think we have learned how to finish."

Indeed they have, finishing a streak, finishing a mojo, turning a midseason celebration into just another dank lakefront dirge.

In the tunnel underneath the empty stands here early Sunday evening, a lone voice was heard.

"Odom, he killed us dead."

Odom, he of new life.

--

bill.plaschke@latimes.com

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