LOS ANGELES -- Momentum. It's something everyone likes to talk about: "They have the momentum now," media types and fans often proclaim. And it's certainly something the Los Angeles Lakers would like to think they have as they head to Houston for Game 6 on Thursday.
But Lakers co-captain Derek Fisher, a veteran of 163 playoff games and three championship teams, says game-to-game momentum doesn't exist, just as the Lakers' 118-78 blowout of the Rockets in Game 5 wasn't the "statement game" all of Los Angeles had been waiting for.
"Every game is different," Fisher said. "To say we recaptured the magic [in Game 5] means Thursday we'll play the same way. That's just not how this works. Thursday, we might shoot 39 percent, and you just got to play defense and rebound and hustle and take charges and figure out a way to win the game. It's going to be different than it was [Tuesday]."
And that could include the play of their on-again, off-again man in the middle, Andrew Bynum, who started in place of the ailing Lamar Odom in Game 5 and came up with more points than fouls in the first few minutes of the game, unlike in the first few games of the series.
"I got into a little rhythm," he said after a 90-minute practice Wednesday before boarding a flight to Houston.
Bynum, who finished with 16 points in 20 minutes of play, has been called everything from soft to lazy to, perhaps worst of all, nonchalant. He has been crucified for admitting that most of his problems have been mental, rather than physical, in returning after tearing the medial collateral ligament in his right knee. And he's a key part of a Lakers mystery: Since his absence seemed to be a key reason L.A. lost to Boston in the NBA Finals last June, why hasn't his return helped the team this season?
"You've got to remember he's a 21-year-old kid coming off sitting out 32 games with injury," Fisher said.
Bynum entered the NBA as the youngest player to ever play in the league and still is developing muscle on his baby-faced body. He is soft-spoken and mannerly, hardly the image of someone who viciously prowls the paint. Lakers coach Phil Jackson usually has had an enforcer on his teams, someone like Dennis Rodman, Ron Harper or Robert Horry to send a message. Fisher tried to be that guy in Game 3, but he's a point guard. Many have hoped Bynum will be that player for L.A. in the playoffs, but he hasn't been.
Part of the problem has been the knee injury, which requires him to play with an awkward brace that he says restricts his mobility and lift and reminds him he missed 32 games and is just "85 percent" healthy.
His mellow personality is misleading, Fisher says, but Bynum is sensitive enough that the Lakers have been cautious about how they talk to him, how they encourage him, how they deliver the criticism. They might want to get in his face and tell him to step up to his enormous potential, but some guys just don't respond to that, Fisher says, and Bynum is one of them.
"We push Andrew, but we respect who he is and we don't ride him in a way that we feel like it would disrupt his confidence or his ability to go out there and help our team," Fisher said. "We have to use Andrew the right way. We can't just put him out there and if he doesn't come back with 15 points and 15 rebounds, now everyone is upset, saying, 'What is Andrew doing?' We have got to put him into position to do those things."
Which they did in Game 5, in part by starting him. Even big-time, professional, millionaire ballplayers still get jazzed about starting games. That includes Odom, who was in so much pain the night before Game 5 that he slept in a chair, unable to lie out straight on his bed -- but he still wanted to start.
Odom did play through the pain of a badly bruised back when Bynum came out in Game 5, with Jackson sensing that Bynum was favoring the injured knee. Odom remains day-to-day and was "no worse for the wear," Jackson said, after his efforts in Game 5.
The Lakers likely will go big again Thursday night to take advantage of Houston's Yao Ming-less small lineup. But they know that alone won't do it. They know they need to reach back and find even more energy and passion than they displayed in Game 5.
Because, as they say, they can't count on momentum.
Shelley Smith is an ESPN bureau reporter based in Los Angeles.