Reporting from New Orleans
After Kobe Bryant is checked off as healthy from head to toe, it's the single most important body part for the Lakers' playoff hopes.
Andrew Bynum's right knee.
Whenever the 23-year-old center falls, conversation stops among the wealthy in the courtside chairs at Staples Center. The die-hards in the upper level sag in their seats. The players themselves wonder how long he'll be down . . . and if he'll get up.
Bynum has had three hold-your-breath moments in the last three weeks with his knee, the latest Friday night in Game 3 of a first-round playoff series against New Orleans.
He crashed to the court after bumping into Carl Landry and stepping on the foot of Marco Belinelli while moving down the lane on offense. He got up . . . again . . . without any issues . . . the Lakers were pleased to report . . . for now.
"It's a scary, scary moment because we know the history and we know how much he suffered and we know how important he is for the team," Pau Gasol said Saturday. "Every time he goes down and it takes a little while to get up, there's some tension."
Bynum is fine for Game 4 Sunday in New Orleans, but he's had serious knee injuries each of the previous three seasons, not to mention surgery on the left one in 2008 (briefly dislocated kneecap) and the right one last July (torn cartilage).
He missed the first 24 games this season while recovering from the procedure and began interrupting idle chatter earlier this month with his first tumble.
"At home it's worse," he said of Lakers fans. "It gets kind of silent."
He sustained a bone bruise in his right knee April 3 when Lamar Odom slammed into him after missing a shot, forcing Bynum to leave a game against Denver. He left another game a week later after stepping on the foot of San Antonio center DeJuan Blair, aggravating the bone bruise and sitting out the regular-season finale a day later.
On Friday, as the Lakers were on their way to taking a 2-1 series lead, Coach Phil Jackson motioned to two players on the bench to go help Bynum walk off the court. It wasn't needed.
Bynum popped back up after a minute and jogged off yet another aggravation to the bone bruise, among other things.
"I think it just happens because the MCL is kind of loose," Bynum said of his knee ligament. "But as long as I have the brace on it, hopefully I'll be all right every time."
Jackson understands the importance of Bynum. He's already seen these scenes too many times.
"He's had some situations in which they appear to be devastating. Down and not getting up," he said. "[Friday] night I sent the guys out for him because it didn't look like he was going to be able to get off the floor. He attempted one time to get off the floor and went back down on the floor. And then he stayed in the ballgame, so go figure."
Bynum was hurt in the first round last season against Oklahoma City but continued to play, endearing himself to the franchise for pushing through his cartilage injury.
It's happening again, a year later, spill after spill.
"The way he toughed it out last year in the playoffs was remarkable," Gasol said. "So he just continues to do it."
Losses aren't all that teams hope to minimize this time of year. So is travel.
If the Lakers lose Game 4, they'll have to come back to New Orleans no matter what for Game 6 in the best-of-seven series.
They won't do themselves any favors by returning to their dawdling ways Sunday.
"We want to win that game and go home and win the series," Bynum said. "That's pretty much our plan."
Yep, that was Derek Fisher gathering the starters near the end of the first quarter in Game 3, demanding continual effort from them during a timeout.
"He's definitely the spokesman for this team as far as leadership goes," Jackson said.
He spent most of the time talking to Gasol, who had only two points in the first quarter.
"My teammates are being supportive because they've seen me struggle shooting the ball and know I'm a little tentative," Gasol said. "They just wanted me to play my game and have the freedom to do whatever I wanted out there because they believe and they trust in my abilities."
Gasol, slowed by an upper-respiratory infection, finally came alive in the fourth quarter, scoring seven points and finishing with 17.
Three for all
Gasol probably won't be shooting another three-pointer.
"Only if necessary," he said. "That's like an emergency shot."
Don't bet on one from Bynum either, even though he often practices them before games, with surprising accuracy, too.
"That's not my shot, sir," he said. "I shot one in Orlando years ago and got taken out."