PER Diem: April 24, 2009

In the big picture, the Lakers' 88-86 loss to Utah on Thursday night is almost certainly irrelevant. The Jazz aren't going to win three more games in this series, not when they needed Kobe Bryant to shoot 5-for-24 just to eke out a two-point win at home.

The way the Lakers lost, however, might be incredibly relevant.

As we head toward the seemingly inevitable destiny of a Lakers-Cavs showdown in the Finals (calm down, Nuggets and Magic fans -- I said "seemingly"), the biggest reason pundits give the Lakers a decent chance of prevailing is the return of center Andrew Bynum.

The 7-foot Bynum wasn't there last season when Boston's physicality overwhelmed L.A. in six games for the championship, but he's been a major part of the Lakers' 65-win juggernaut this season. Even when he suffered a torn medial collateral ligament that cost him 32 games, nobody worried too much. He'd be back in time for the playoffs, and indeed he was.

Additionally, Bynum looked fantastic in his first few games back. He dominated stretches against Denver in his post-injury debut and then went to Portland and had another strong game against the Blazers' two 7-footers, Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla.

Since the playoffs started, however, his production has dwindled. He says he's having trouble with the knee brace he's wearing, and he skipped practice Wednesday because of soreness in the knee.

Thursday night was his worst showing yet. Against a Utah team missing its starting center and playing most of the game without a player taller than 6-9, Bynum picked up five fouls in seven minutes and spent most of the game on the pine. His first two games weren't much better, as he had seven points and three boards in Game 1 and 10 points and four boards in Game 2.

However, those stats tell only part of the story. The biggest reason to fear L.A. with Bynum was what he meant at the defensive end. With the 7-footer patrolling the middle, the Lakers were an elite defensive team. L.A. gave up 1.2 fewer points per 48 minutes, rebounded at a higher rate and, most tellingly, allowed four fewer free throws per 48 minutes with him around to protect the rim.

Without Bynum at full strength or on the court? You can score on the Lakers. The Jazz proved it throughout the first two games of the series, rolling up 100 and 109 points on the Lakers' home court despite not having Mehmet Okur. Even while they were misfiring Thursday night, the Jazz still grabbed 14 more offensive rebounds, bringing their total to 43 in three games; Utah's offensive rebound rate is an unacceptable (to the Lakers) 35.5 percent for the series.

And the most telling plays came at the end Thursday night. When Deron Williams and Carlos Boozer ran a prefect screen-and-roll that ended in a Boozer finger roll, there was no Bynum at the rim to knock it away. And when Boozer got the rock with 16 seconds left in the tie game, he found himself facing up against Pau Gasol, not Bynum … and when he got past Gasol, L.A. no longer had a second 7-footer waiting at the rim.

That's not to take away from Boozer, who exploded off the floor like he was shot out of a cannon for a monstrous lefty jam, but there's no question the degree of difficulty would have increased several notches had a healthy, active Bynum been patrolling the paint.

Bynum might have helped offensively, too. Utah got away with playing a too-short frontcourt of Boozer and Paul Millsap most of the game because Gasol was L.A.'s only post threat. Had Bynum been on his game, he would have devoured those guys, much like he did in the regular-season finale between the two teams, when he scored 22 points and we pronounced the Lakers ready to take on all comers. Alas, that was before his knee started giving him trouble.

Even with Bynum in his current limited state, the Lakers remain an overwhelming favorite to win the Western Conference, particularly if perennial thorn Portland can't make it out of the first round.

But once they get there, they need the size to deal with Cleveland's Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Anderson Varejao, Joe Smith and Ben Wallace; that's not a challenge Gasol can handle alone, especially when L.A. also needs its big men to help halt LeBron James' forays to the rim.

In other words, even though Bryant and Gasol are the stars, Bynum's battle with his wounded knee remains the biggest key to L.A.'s title hopes. In his absence last season, the Lakers were steamrolled by Boston, and it seems the same fate would await them this season. Add a healthy, active Bynum to the mix, though, and it's a toss-up.

Thus, the big takeaway from Thursday night's Utah win isn't what it means for this series; most likely, it just means the series will go five games instead of four. Where the implications run deep is down the road. Bynum's knee is the biggest question mark surrounding the Lakers' championship hopes, and after his latest performance, the questions are only getting louder.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.