Bynum, the 22-year-old starting center for the Lakers in these Finals, has battled a knee injury throughout the postseason but has yet to miss a game. But in Game 4 of the Finals on Thursday night, he had perhaps his toughest struggle yet.
Bynum, who has a slight tear of the meniscus that will require offseason surgery, left Game 4 with 8:10 left in the second quarter. He spent a long time in the visiting locker room at the TD Garden receiving medical attention at halftime, and he was late to return.
He played just two minutes in the second half, toward the end of the third quarter. He finished with two points and three rebounds in just over 12 minutes. Not exactly a full day's work.
Going forward, the Lakers don't have a clue what to expect.
"I haven't got any expectations," said Lakers coach Phil Jackson. "I don't know what his condition is today. He was going to see the doctor later this morning, but in the transition I didn't get another check with him."
Bynum had trouble running in the Lakers' shootaround on Thursday morning before Game 4. During the day, he was considered questionable for the game. Once 9 p.m. arrived and the game tipped off, Bynum was out there competing, but he wasn't his usual self. He was a step slower and a touch weaker. The Celtics, being a smart team with keen awareness of its matchups, exploited it.
Now the Lakers have to adjust.
"If he can't get back on defense transition‑wise, and that's one of the things they're trying to attack with our first unit obviously when Andrew is out there, try and run, then obviously he's going to hurt the team," Jackson said. "But even with him dragging the leg around a little bit, he still helped us in situations last night getting rebounds. … Andrew still has the length and the strength to capture rebounds that we need. So we'll use him if he's available and able, but we're certainly not going to put him in a situation that's either going to hurt himself or the team."
The Lakers are in a difficult position. They need Bynum in this series — their size and their length have been tremendous assets all year long, and Bynum's been a big reason why. Teamed with Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom, he gives the Lakers an inside presence that can overwhelm anyone in the NBA — sometimes even the towering trio of Kendrick Perkins, Rasheed Wallace and Kevin Garnett.
Without Bynum, it's a whole new ballgame.
"They miss him," Celtics coach Doc Rivers said. "He has great size and length, and we attacked the paint yesterday when Andrew wasn't there. So I mean, obviously when he's not on the floor, there's a big difference."
The Celtics understand that difference better than anyone, because they beat the Lakers in the 2008 Finals when Bynum had a dislocated left kneecap — yes, that's the other knee — and couldn't play. The Lakers were a man short, and the Celtics took advantage, outplaying Gasol and Odom in the low post.
This time around, he's been huge. In this postseason, he's helped out to the tune of 9.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per game. He's blocked eight shots in this series, seven of them in Game 2 alone.
"Obviously we miss Andrew when he's not out there," said Gasol. "He's been so effective, just blocking shots and rebounding. Those two things alone are a big plus when he's out there for us, and it's something that we're going to need to continue to work on on the next game."
Now, it's time for the Lakers to work out a contingency plan.
"We have multiple scenarios that we go through about our matchups and about who can play whom and about how we're going to run a game and the skills we're going to use during the game," Jackson said. "So we know what we want to do if Lamar is in the lineup and we have to go in that direction, or if we have to go another direction if Luke [Walton] comes in and plays for Ron [Artest] and whatnot. We'll make those necessary adjustments."
If Bynum can't go on Sunday, you can expect a whole domino effect of rotation tweaks.
"Matchups are key in important situations," Jackson said. "Now we have to debate: Can Lamar actually play [Glen] Davis in a situation in the course of a game, or do we have to change the matchups? This has happened a couple times now. Those are the situations the coaching staff will go through. We'll make those decisions in the next 48 hours."
A whole lot is riding on one 22-year-old kid. We'll find out in the coming days if he can carry the load.