ATLANTA -- If the Los Angeles Lakers beat the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday, they'll run their current winning streak to eight games, matching the longest win streak they've had since starting the season off 8-0.
While the Lakers haven't made any drastic trades in the time from October to March and wear the same familiar purple and gold jerseys, the win streaks are hardly matching bookends.
The difference is Andrew Bynum, who missed the first 24 games of the year while recovering from offseason knee surgery and the revamped team defense that his presence in the lineup allows the Lakers to play.
During the Lakers unblemished seven-game portion of the schedule coming out of the All-Star break, they held teams to just 87 points per game and only allowed one team to top 100, Portland, in a game that went to overtime. In the seven wins, Bynum grabbed 10 or more rebounds five times and blocked three or more shots four times while attempting seven or more shots just three times.
His offensive abandonment coupled with defensive devotion was never more prevalent than in the Lakers' statement win Sunday in San Antonio when Bynum had 17 rebounds and three blocks but scored just four points on 2-of-2 shooting from the floor.
"You can always play defense versus offense is really the difference in the way I look at the game," Bynum said Sunday. "You can always play defense no matter what. Offensively sometimes you're not going to get the ball. It's too many variables offensively that can bother you. Defensively, it's just energy so you have to be pumped up to play it."
In the past, the 23-year old Bynum had used early offense to fuel his energy level. He would become much more engaged in the game if he put the ball in the basket than if he stopped an opponent from doing the same.
But something changed for the sixth-year center when he approached Lakers head coach Phil Jackson to talk following a film session at the Lakers practice facility in El Segundo a couple weeks back.
"He felt he was inactive and he wasn't active enough and he needed to be more active on the defensive end," Jackson said before the Lakers practiced in Atlanta on Monday. "We didn't talk about the offense at all. I told him the difference between us being a good club and a great club is his presence on the floor defensively and rebounding. Andrew's a smart kid, he understands that."
Lakers assistant coach Chuck Person sold Jackson on changing the team defense this season to keep Bynum in the lane on the defensive end, rather than amble out to the perimeter to help out guards contending with pick-and-rolls.
"He's a plug," Jackson said. "He's in there stopping penetration."
But before the system could really take, two things needed to happen. First, Bynum needed to fully recover from the right knee surgery he underwent in July, his third knee surgery in three years. He is just now getting his conditioning back to be able to make the crucial "second jump" in a single defensive possession to be able to contest a shot with the first jump and then go and grab the board on the second, according to Person. And second, Bynum needed to take ownership of the role.
So many players on the Lakers have clearly-defined identities. Kobe Bryant is the all-time great with the killer instinct; Pau Gasol the perennial All-Star and supremely-talented big man; Lamar Odom the do-everything and do it well spoil of riches off the bench; Derek Fisher the seasoned veteran with the penchant for hitting the clutch shot; and even Shannon Brown the ultra-athletic leaper with the emerging outside shot.
Bynum, whether it was a deserved reputation or not, was known as the guy whose constant injuries may derail his chance of ever reaching his full potential. To overcome that, Bynum desperately wanted to make the All-Star team to be recognized for his individual talent and to do that takes scoring.
But he's put the All-Star goal aside and with the new Lakers' defense designed around him, Bynum's commitment isn't just to playing defense, but to playing a defense designed to let him shine on the court.
"There's no question he's the captain of this defense," Person said. "He likes this role ... Andrew fits the mold of a perfect guy that can anchor a defense with such talented players around him."
Said Bryant, one of the Lakers official co-captains, along with Fisher: "The more active he is, the better we are ... We have a natural shot blocker, that's what he does. He has great timing and he moves his feet well and that's a big key for our team."
Bynum has looked to some of Jackson's Chicago squads of the past to see that he's not the first big guy to sublimate his offense for the good of the team.
"They didn't really have an offensive dominant big man, but they had guys who control the paint in [Bill] Cartwright and [Luc] Longley and just made it tough for guys to score," Bynum said. "Then Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen and the rest of those guys would just do all of the damage. I think we have a team like that."
Person takes control
The new defense hasn't only highlighted Bynum's importance to the team, but its defined Person's contributions as well.
Person, a former assistant coach of Ron Artest's in Indiana and Sacramento, was brought in at the beginning of last season on an interim basis to help aid in Artest's adjustment period to L.A. Soon after he began working closely with Bynum and Bryant and by the time the playoffs rolled around last spring, he had been asked to stay on full-time and became comfortable enough with Jackson to share some of his defensive philosophies with the Hall of Fame coach.
"I gave Phil a copy of my defensive book strategies that I had, he read it, he liked it and it went from there," Person said.
The first iteration of the Lakers' new defense was actually deployed in the Finals against the Celtics.
The impact Person made on the Lakers last year resulted in a job offer from Nate McMillan to come to Portland and act as the Trail Blazers' defensive coordinator, but he opted to stay in L.A. and see what his system could do with the Lakers when implemented over the course of a full season.
"He took what Kurt [Rambis] had offered the team and kind of marshaled it from our group and extended it another step," said Jackson, referring to Rambis' responsibilities administering the team's defense as an assistant coach before taking a job as the head man in Minnesota before the start of the 2009-10 season.
In Jackson's "last stand" season, he even has relinquished practice time teaching his patented triangle offense so that Person could put his defensive system into place.
"We really kind of gave Chuck Person dedicated moments in practice to kind of really work on our defense," Jackson said. "He's been really good with the guys and handled it really well and we've taken extra time in practice defensively rather than doing as much offensive execution as we have in the past. It's taken awhile. It took us about a month to just adjust to what we were doing differently. We still have guys making mistakes -- that's going to happen for awhile -- but we're starting to understand it."
Person has used the practice time to not just preach the new defensive principles, but to get the players engaged and to take pride in making stops in difficult situations.
"He's instituted a couple new drills for us -- five against four, four against three -- to put the defense at a disadvantage so we scramble around and talk to each other," Bynum said.
Person was known as "The Rifleman" in his playing days because of his sweet outside shooting stroke, but his transition to defensive guru isn't as strange as it might seem.
"Good offensive players who go to the other side, they know what to take away from scorers," he said.
Describing the defense
Specifically, what's changed on the Lakers defense is that big men no longer are responsible for the perimeter against guards coming off screens. Instead, the Lakers wing defenders will purposefully run opposing guards off the 3-point line and funnel them to Bynum or Gasol waiting for them at the rim.
Jackson pointed out that it is directly opposite what the Miami Heat runs where their bigs try to "blitz" the guard as soon as he comes off a perimeter screen. The problem is, if that blitz doesn't work and the guard is able to get by, he will have an unencumbered trip to the hoop the rest of the way, as was the case with Chicago's Derrick Rose in the Bulls win over the Heat on Sunday.
As much as the defense has improved, there is still a soft spot on the court it leaves open. The Lakers wing defenders do their best at running players off the 3-point line and their big men try to take away the paint, but that still leaves the midrange game open for business.
"You have to give up something," Jackson admitted.
In today's NBA, full of players whose offensive games are not refined enough to connect on pull-up jumpers on a consistent basis, it's a smart compromise by the Lakers.
"We live with those shots, 15-19 [feet], long twos, contested twos," Person said. "Maybe the only midrange guys left in our game are Kobe Bryant and Paul Pierce."
And one of those guys plays in L.A.
Person said the basis of the defense is man-to-man with some zone principles mixed in. So, while Bynum describes his role as "kind of like a rover" in the middle, that doesn't mean there's an electric fence around the paint that's going to shock Bynum's big 7-foot, 285-pound body whenever he strays from the inside to contest a shooter. Sometimes Bynum is required to extend himself out to the wing and his rim-protecting duties are passed on to a guard or forward behind him to rotate and fill in his spot.
"The small guys have to be able to be in there and take charges which you guys see we've been doing a lot more of," Person said. "This system is like the triangle. If one guy is out of place, it screws up the flow of the system."
These variations of Bynum's responsibilities, along with adjusting the defense to fit with the league's defensive three-second rule, has made picking up the defense a growth exercise for the entire team.
"It's something that they're learning and because they're learning they have kind of a learner's mentality, a beginner mind, which is really important," Jackson said.
Defending the title
All of this talk of defense is appropriate because the real mission the Lakers are on this season is defending their back-to-back titles by winning a three-peat championship.
The new defense has given Bynum and Person clearly defined roles within the team, but it's also energized everybody else in the process. That's no small feat for a team that has played more than 100 games each of the last three seasons and has seen its best players -- Bryant, Gasol and Odom -- spread their basketball lives even thinner by giving up summers to play in international competitions.
"[The defense] allows Drew to be in the middle, a presence in the lane, changing shots and rebounding and I think that has really given us a second wind as far as the team goes," Jackson said.
Bynum recently started up a Twitter account and in the 140 character "Bio" portion of the page wrote, "There's NO I in team! Just win baby!"
But there is D in the defending champs and it starts with Bynum.
Dave McMenamin covers the Lakers for ESPNLosAngeles.com. Follow him on Twitter.