There goes the championship

Kobe Bryant just popped off for 61 points against the New York Knicks, Broadway is still buzzing on its latest theatrics and the Lakers are 3-0 in the midst of a team-testing six-game road trip.

From the sight and sound of it, no one would ever know there is a 7-foot, 285-pound crater under the basket by the name of Andrew Bynum, who will be sidelined somewhere around eight to 12 weeks because of a torn medial collateral ligament in his right knee.

Because the hoopla was around Bryant and his record for most points ever scored at the iconic Madison Square Garden, the extent of Bynum’s injury was second-tier news and flew right under the dropped jaws of Lakerville.’

As life without ‘Drew again becomes a reality, 12 weeks from now would mean the playoffs have already started, the morose scenario the Lakers dealt with at the same time last year, against the same team (the Memphis Grizzlies).

Although the extent of the injury is substantially less, returning to top form against the elite big men of the league will be a tall task for Bynum as he returns to game speed right in the middle of the postseason. He’s facing the exact diagnosis from last year as a couple of months can certainly turn into the rest of the year.

All of a sudden, the Lake show is vincible.

‘It’s better news than I expected to hear because of the shot that I took,’ the 21 year-old said after he learned about the test results. ‘This should definitely be different just because the injury isn’t the same.’

His coach and teammates offered a somber tone of disappointment after they found out doctors prescribed a non-surgical recovery, only to follow it up with self-assuring remarks about their confidence and capabilities.

‘Without Andrew in the lineup, of course we still feel really confident,’ said forward Lamar Odom, who has about as much confidence as Bynum has range beyond the three-point line. ‘We still feel very confident of our ability to play at a high level. It’s too bad we have to do it without him, because we love having him around.’

Might as well have said, ‘Thanks Drew for being the team’s third-leading scorer, second-leading rebounder and top shot blocker. See you in the Whirlpool. It was great that you developed into the physical and intimidating monster that we thought you were, but Josh Powell and Chris Mihm will suffice. You actually even make Phil Jackson’s job easier because he won’t have to sub you out during crucial moments in a game.’

The team leader, Bryant, also seemed unfazed when he spoke to the New York media.

‘There are teams that lost in the Finals that go back and win the next year,’ said Bryant. ‘I think having Andrew in the lineup makes us a very dominant team. (With) him out of the lineup, we’re still a great team. You put him in the mix and it takes us to another level.’
Indeed. Metaphorically speaking, he does take them to another level – the championship level – the same level the Lakers did not reach last year as Bynum recovered from a left knee injury and won’t again this year if he does not come back healthy.’

This season, Bynum recovered strongly from last year’s injury while making a case for Most Improved honors and was deemed the winning wild card for the championship contending Lakers. He went on a Shaq-like tear before he was injured last Saturday, averaging 26.2 points, 13.8 rebounds and 3.2 blocks during a five-game stretch of double-doubles, including a breakout 42-point game against the Clippers.

Bryant and Gasol, the newly-anointed ‘center,’ alleviated the Lakers’ pain Monday night by scoring 30 of the first 31 points in the first quarter and 92 of 126 overall, accounting for 73 percent of the offense. But that’s a one-time deal.

With the hopes of Gasol and Bynum developing into the second coming of the NBA’s Twin Towers as the San Antonio Spurs did with Tim Duncan and David Robinson on hold for a couple months, the Lakers helm at the top spot will certainly be challenged by the pesky Spurs, and only the Spurs as the Western Conference has seen a severe drop off in championship-caliber teams.’

The Lakers have three more games left to play on the road trip, tonight in Toronto, and the final two being against the Boston Celtics and Cleveland Cavaliers – the top two teams in the Eastern Conference.

With Bynum, the Lakers beat both teams earlier this seasa on at Staples Center. The next two games will be the measuring stick for the rest of the year. Can the Lakers yet again play without Bynum, who is undoubtedly in the winning formula in the Lakers’ quest for a 15th championship – and beyond?

Jermaine O’Neal, Chris Bosh, Kevin Garnett, Kendrick Perkins, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and Ben Wallace will certainly make the Lakers miss Bynum’s presence just on the conclusion of this road trip alone.

‘We know we’re going to miss his presence, his rebounding ability. But this is a very capable team,’ Jackson said.

The phlegmatic Jackson will find out of the team’s capabilities by Sunday evening’s plane ride back home following a game against LeBron James and the Cavs, a team that’s 22-0 at home.