For the last five minutes, Andrew Bynum ended Saturday's practice in the same fashion that earned him a benching just over a month ago. He shot three-pointers. And he made the most of them. But what proved more important in that session happened moments earlier when Bynum and Pau Gasol took turns defending each other in the post. Their size presence alone gives the Lakers the most distinguishable advantage heading into their first-round series beginning Sunday at Staples Center against the Denver Nuggets. And it's likely Denver will throw every ounce of resource to prevent that from happening.
The Lakers' 3-1 edge over the Nuggets this season suggests the team's frontcourt will be ready. Bynum averaged 24.8 points on 66.1% shooting and 11.8 rebounds despite blistering double teams. When those looks didn't fall, Pau Gasol punished the Nuggets with a dependable mid-range jumper and faciltiated the offense en route to 16 points per game on 54.2% shooting.
That's not going to stop the Nuggets from using every combination imaginable in the hopes that something works. Denver Coach George Karl told the Denver Post's Benjamin Hochman he may shuffle lineups as quickly as they do in hockey, including starting center Kosta Koufos, rookie power forward Kenneth Faried, reserves Al Harrington, JaVale McGee and Timofey Mozgov, and even seldom-used center Chris Anderson. In turn Bynum anticipates the double and triple teams will come from everywhere, ranging from the baseline, the post and the top of the key.
"I want to go out and do great things and play well," Bynum said. "For me to do that, I will have to play hard the entire game. If you get shut out in the first quarter, it doesn't matter. There's three more."
Bynum hasn't always carried that mind-set. Despite reaching his first All-Star game and logging career highs in points (18.7), rebounds (11.8) and minutes (35.2), Bynum's dropped his effort on defense and on the glass. After becoming the fifth player in Laker history to record 30 rebounds three weeks ago against San Antonio, Bynum has posted single-digit rebounds in five of the next six games. He lacked so much defensive effort on pick-and-rolls last week against Oklahoma City that Lakers Coach Mike Brown benched him for the entire fourth quarter and subsequent overtimes in favor of seldom-used forward Jordan Hill.
Gasol hasn't had a problem in that area this season, but he did in the 2011 playoffs. The Lakers four-game sweep of the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference semifinals featured Gasol averaging 13.1 points on 42.9% shooting, appearing frustrated on an unstopabble Dirk Nowitzki and fighting suspicion that personal problems affected his play. Gasol downplayed the significance on how his outing against Denver will serve as the first step in rectifying his poor effort against Dallas.
"I just want to play hard and play well and help my team do what we're supposed to do," Gasol said. "It's not much about proving. It's about doing what I can do out there and having a positive mind-set and aggressive mind-set there."
Gasol will have to, considering Faried likes to play physical. But both Bynum and Gasol will have to, considering it remains to be seen how much the Lakers feature them in the offense.
In the Lakers' 92-89 New Year's Eve win over Denver, Bryant played the facilitating role well. Though he scored only 17 points on six-for-18 shooting, Bryant recorded a near-triple-double with 10 rebounds and nine assists and by setting Bynum and Gasol up en route to a combined 46 points on 20-of-28 shooting. But in the Lakers' 99-90 New Year's Day loss to Denver, Bryant shot six-of-28 despite Bynum and Gasol combining for 38 points on 15-for-27 shooting.
"I'm just looking to play well regardless of my role," Bynum said. "We're well aware that we need to come out here and a make a statement with the first game. We need to win it in a good way."
Winning in a good way against Denver clearly involves Bynum and Gasol as the focal point. It'll help minimize the Nuggets running its league-leading 104.12 points averaged in total offense. It'll help the Lakers absorb Metta World Peace's absence because of a six-game suspension stemming from his elbowing last week on Oklahoma City's James Harden. It'll likely make the Nuggets' relentless effort on flooding the post a lost cause.