1. Life Without Bynum For The Lakers ... Again
LOS ANGELES -- The reflex in Lakerland, where they've seen and done it all before, is to react to Andrew Bynum's latest injury and eventual return by calling it a rerun.
"We almost had the same kind of situation" last year, Phil Jackson said, alluding to the knee injury that sidelined Bynum from January until just before the start of the playoffs.
The difference is that this time Bynum has been a more vital part of the Lakers than he has in the past. And there's always a chance that this could be a replay of 2008, when Bynum was injured, projected to return for the playoffs and never did. While the Lakers have given a two-week estimate for Bynum to come back from a strained left Achilles tendon, Jackson admitted Sunday night that "we really have nothing definitive about it."
They only know that the tendon didn't rupture.
"We don't know how this therapy's going to come out," Jackson said.
And they don't know what his conditioning level will be after an injury that restricts his initial workouts to jogging in a pool. From there it could take some time to get back to NBA basketball game speed. There are 3½ weeks and 11 games left in the Lakers' regular season.
In 2009-10 Bynum has been more valuable than ever before. He has produced 14 percent of the team's point total this season, second only to Kobe Bryant. Last season, he accounted for only 8 percent of the point total; of course, he appeared in only 50 games before a knee injury kept him off the court from the end of January through the middle of April. Even though he was available for the postseason (unlike the year before), as Jackson said, "I don't think the playoffs happened for him."
Bynum was out of sync, got caught in unfavorable matchups against smaller, quicker teams, and watched Lamar Odom swallow up his minutes and spot in the starting lineup. But it's hard to imagine Bynum vanishing this year, not when he has recorded a career-best 21 double-doubles, is averaging a career-high 30 minutes per game and had posted 40 points and 26 rebounds in the two full games before he strained his left Achilles tendon Friday night against Minnesota. The Lakers have become more accustomed to looking for him. He averages almost 16 points per game in their victories compared to 13 in their losses.
The Lakers' best stretch of the season came with both Bynum and Pau Gasol in the lineup. When Gasol first came back from the hamstring injury that delayed the start of his season, the Lakers rolled off 10 consecutive victories, all but one of them by a double-digit margin. Even if Bynum had his difficulties adjusting to the presence of Gasol and the restructured hierarchy of shots, Lakers' opponents had even more frustration trying to deal with the two of them.
Coach after coach was left shaking his head after absorbing another defeat in Staples Center (since the Lakers played almost all of their games there in the first part of the season), repeating the same stock answer about how difficult it was to contend with the Lakers' length.
Sunday night's game against the Wizards should have counted as a double-digit victory. Pau Gasol had 28 and 12. ("No sense of obligation," Gasol said. "I always try to be productive. Obviously with Andrew being out I had a couple more looks in the post, that's about it.") Lamar Odom grabbed 13 rebounds, Kobe Bryant made 4-of-7 3-pointers and scored 24 points. But thanks to what Jackson called an "awful second half," in which the Wizards outscored the Lakers 59-40, what was once a 28-point lead resulted in a 99-92 victory.
So the Lakers repeated some of their same old phrases about needing to play a complete game, to find a way to finish off opponents, etc. But Derek Fisher addressed what the absence of Bynum could mean down the road.
"I just think that with guys in and out at different times as well as a heavy road schedule for this latter part of the season, in some ways it's impacted our ability to really have good, quality practices and really get better, put that work in that you have to put in," Fisher said. "It's slowed us down somewhat. I think because of our experience, we're most concerned about really being healthy when the postseason starts. We feel like we have some room to push and really get better."
Of course, the Cleveland Cavaliers have tried to incorporate Shaquille O'Neal, lost him to injury, been with and without Mo Williams and Delonte West, traded Zydrunas Ilgauskas and waited for him to clear a 30-day moratorium to re-sign him -- and still maintained the best record in the league. But Fisher is on to something. And he usually is the stethoscope that reveals the sound of this team's heart.
The Lakers have been searching for the last few months, unable to find consistency, a killer instinct or championship stride. It's possible that they'll enter the playoffs with their preferred starting lineup of Bryant, Fisher, Bynum, Gasol and Ron Artest intact for slightly more than half the season. It's possible that Bynum won't get back to the level he was at in November -- and neither will the Lakers.
J.A. Adande is a columnist for ESPN.com.
2. Ex-Knicks Hill and Jeffries Come Up Big
NEW YORK -- For the first 12 minutes, Tracy McGrady was back in superstar form. But the rest of the afternoon, McGrady's alumni game against his former team was impacted more by the two players the New York Knicks sent to the Houston Rockets in order to acquire McGrady and his mammoth expiring contract.
Jordan Hill, labeled a "bad rookie" by Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni in a particularly harsh pregame comment, played the final 16:04 and scored 13 of the Rockets' 52 bench points as Houston stayed on the cusp of the Western Conference playoff race by rallying past New York 116-112 on Sunday.
Jared Jeffries played all but five seconds of the fourth quarter, drawing three charges and blocking two shots in the final period as coach Rick Adelman went with his subs for most of the final quarter. Houston, ninth in the West, won for the fifth time in six games and trails eighth-place Portland by 4½ games (and seventh-place San Antonio by five).
Hill claimed to feel no heightened sense of redemption in helping defeat the team that drafted him No. 8 overall last June, but his feelings might have been different if he were aware of what his former coach had said about him 90 minutes before tipoff.
"I don't like to play bad rookies. I like to play good rookies," D'Antoni said, explaining that Hill was not showing enough in practice to warrant playing time ahead of the Knicks' more established frontcourt players. "I do like Jordan. I think he'll be a nice player in the league, but that's as far as it goes."
That comment was relayed afterward to Hill, who was rendered momentarily speechless.
"Didn't hear that, but what can I say? That's him," Hill said. "He's entitled to his own opinion, so if that's the way he feels, that's how he feels. I'm not trying to make a point. I'm just trying to play basketball. I just want to go out there and have fun and play my game."
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3. Daily Dime Live Recap
ESPN.com writers and TrueHoop Network bloggers chatted with fans and gave their in-game opinions throughout Sunday's games -- all in Daily Dime Live.
4. Three Knicks Score Big In Loss To Rockets
The Rockets survived big games by David Lee (27 points), Toney Douglas (26) and Danilo Gallinari (26) to post a 116-112 win over the Knicks. It was the first time in 24 seasons that Houston won a 48-minute game in which three opposing players scored at least 25 points. The Rockets' last such win was on November 16, 1985 against the Mavericks, who were led by Jay Vincent (29), Sam Perkins (28) and Rolando Blackman (26).
• Kevin Durant (16 points) and Russell Westbrook (0 points, 5 assists) were both subpar in the Thunder's 121-101 loss at Indiana. It was the first time in the 142 games that Durant and Westbrook have played together for Oklahoma City that they combined for fewer than 20 points. Their previous combined low was 21 points against the Trail Blazers last April (Durant 13, Westbrook 8).
Coming into Sunday's loss, Durant ranked second in the NBA in scoring this month (30 points per game); Westbrook ranked 29th in scoring (17.9 PPG) and fourth in assists (9.1 per game).
5. Extreme Behavior
David Lee, Knicks: Normally, this space is reserved for players from winning teams, but it is hard to ignore Lee, who tallied 27 points, 20 rebounds and six assists -- on a banged-up knee -- in New York's loss to the Rockets.
Richard Hamilton, Pistons: Two days after going scoreless in a loss to the Pacers, he went 1-for-8 from the floor, scoring just six points as the Pistons dropped their fifth in a row, 104-79 to the Cavaliers.
QUOTE OF THE NIGHT
"Tonight was a disgrace to how we play and the game of basketball, how we came out, and that starts with me. I apologize to all the fans, all my teammates that I came out like that, and it translated to my team."
-- Thunder's Kevin Durant after scoring just 16 points in a 20-point loss to the Pacers
6. Tyreke Who?
7. NBA Video Channel
8. Blatche Stepping Up For Wiz
ESPN Los Angeles
LOS ANGELES -- The Wizards are oh-fer March as their losing streak reached 11 games Sunday. In a 99-92 loss to the Lakers, the Wizards never led and trailed by as many as 28.
It's tough to take anything positive out of a game like that, but there was a glimmer of hope: The Wizards won the fourth quarter 32-17. It's going to take winning some quarters before they can start winning games.
It's even harder to find a silver lining in the Wizards' disastrous season that saw the team's three All-Stars either suspended after one of the most disturbing locker-room incidents in NBA history (Gilbert Arenas), traded to Dallas for free-agent-to-be Josh Howard, who tore his ACL just four games into his Wizards' career (Caron Butler) or traded to Cleveland, the franchise's bitter rival (Antawn Jamison). And on top of all that, the team's owner, Abe Pollin, one of the most beloved figures in D.C. sports, passed away.
But then, like the flower that sprouts up from a crack in the pavement, came Andray Blatche's rapid development.
Playing on a sprained left ankle, Blatche had 16 points, 12 rebounds, five assists and three steals Sunday, continuing the tear he's been on in the 16 games since the last of the Wizards' Big Three was dispatched from the team. Since Feb. 19, Blatche is averaging 24.1 points and 9.8 rebounds. For reference's sake, Chris Bosh will be one of the most coveted free agents this summer and he is averaging 24.1 points and 11.1 rebounds on the season.
"It's just opportunity and trying to take full advantage of it," Blatche said. "All the hard work is paying off."
The Wizards gave the 6-11, 235-pound hybrid forward a contract extension in the summer of 2007 when he was just a 21-year-old kid coming off a second-round draft pick's two-year deal. It took some time for him to reach the promise Washington saw in him, but as the team looks toward an uncertain future, any stability Blatche can offer is more than welcome.
"Nothing is easy in this league," Blatche said. "Nothing is given. We just have to keep fighting and playing together. That's the most important thing, stay positive."
As bad as it's been on the court for the Wizards, it can get even worse next week as Arenas, the absent face of the franchise, awaits sentencing on Friday. Arenas has cut off virtually all contact with everybody associated with the Wizards save a few players, including Blatche, who he offers text-message advice to after games.
"That's off-the-court issues, that's not our problem," Blatche said about Arenas' court date. "We're trying to focus and win games. We all pray for him. We all hope the best happens out of it."
Blatche, for one, knows about making the best out of a bad situation.
9. The Big Three Are Back
Over the hill. Injury prone. Inconsistent. These were the refrains used to describe the Celtics as recently as last Monday. This squad had been left for dead, and for good reason. The C's had played sub-.500 ball (18-19) for the past three months. Any talk of contending for a championship had been replaced by whispers of whether the once high-and-mighty Celtics were ripe for a first-round upset exit.
Despite the inconsistent results, coach Doc Rivers remained confident and positive about his team and the progress it was making on the floor. The tide began to turn last week, when Boston strung together three consecutive home blowout wins, a feat it hadn't accomplished in months. The skeptics noted that these wins were against inferior opponents, (Indiana, New York and Detroit) but no one could question how impressive the team's "old guard" looked in those affairs.
Paul Pierce led the way, averaging 28 points on 63 percent shooting, looking fully recovered from the plethora of injuries that have affected him since Christmas. Ray Allen has turned back the clock, providing some reliable scoring from downtown, shooting 46 percent from deep in the past 10 games. Kevin Garnett has continued to look sharp defensively. The pieces are slowly starting to fall back into place, bringing back memories of the Celtics' team that started this season at a 23-5 clip.
Questions still linger. Can the Celtics sustain this play? Will they remain healthy for the rest of the season? These are legitimate concerns. With two tough wins in Houston and Dallas, on back-to-back nights this past weekend, the C's are rolling, winning five of six. Thanks to this, cautious optimism about this team contending is back in Boston.
To read more from Robb at Celtics Hub, click here