- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 4, 2009

STORY OF THE WEEK

LAKERS PREPARED FOR LIFE WITHOUT BYNUM

The Los Angeles Lakers were rolling right along on their quest to return to the NBA Finals and possibly get a shot at avenging their loss to the Boston Celtics last summer.

Then on Saturday night, center Andrew Bynum suffered a torn MCL when Kobe Bryant rolled into the fourth-year player’s right knee in a win over Memphis. At first, it appeared the worst had happened. Bynum’s leg went in two different directions, and blown-out knee and blown title hopes popped into everyone’s minds.

Bynum, after missing the last 46 regular-season games and all of the postseason a year ago, was having a career season. The 7-foot, 285-pounder was averaging 14.0 points, 8.2 rebounds and 1.8 blocks, and it seemed as if he could be the difference maker for the Lakers, who last season suffered against Kevin Garnett and the Celtics in the finals without a physical presence in the middle.

Fortunately for Bynum and the Lakers, it was learned Monday the center only had torn his MCL - an injury that is more like a strain and requires no surgery to recover - and will miss eight to 12 weeks while recovering.

Eight to 12 weeks would put Bynum back in action in late May or early June, which means his chances of playing in the postseason aren’t totally shot - if the Lakers are still playing at that point.

And in reality, even without Bynum, the Lakers remain a force in the West. They’re already used to playing without him, having overcome his absence last season. A move to acquire Pau Gasol helped make that possible, and he is now more comfortable in the Lakers’ system than he was last year. And the rest of the role players from last season - all of which have been on the team for a decent amount of time now - have had more time to grow.

Couple those factors with the fact that the Western Conference is actually weaker this year, and the Lakers still lead the pack. Three of Los Angeles’ top conference counterparts last season - the New Orleans Hornets, Utah Jazz and Houston Rockets - all have been slowed by injuries this season and aren’t as daunting as they were a year ago.

The exception is San Antonio, which was five games back of the Lakers entering Tuesday but could take advantage of Bynum’s absence to make up some ground.

And the Lakers, of course, still have Kobe Bryant, who Tuesday night almost seemed to make a statement that his team was not going to crumble. He torched the New York Knicks for 61 points, setting a Madison Square Garden record in the process.

The injury to Bynum will make the going a little tougher during the post-All-Star break stretch, but the Lakers likely will remain the leaders of the pack.

TEAM OF THE WEEK

SAN ANTONIO SPURS

After a 99-85 loss to the Lakers on Jan. 25, the Spurs bounced right back with four straight wins entering Tuesday night’s matchup at Denver.

First came a 106-100 win over Utah in which Tony Parker and Tim Duncan scored 24 apiece, then a 114-104 win at Phoenix behind 30 points from Manu Ginobili. A 106-93 victory over New Orleans followed as Parker notched 25 points, then a 110-105 overtime win at Golden State in which Duncan and Ginobili both scored 32.

The Spurs (33-14) are the picture of balance and consistency with Duncan, Ginobili and Parker continuing to lead the way and a deep collection of complementary pieces around them. Yet they continue to fly under the radar - for now.

POWER RANKINGS

1. BOSTON CELTICS (40-9)

Why was anyone worried? The Celtics continue to roll, extending their winning streak to 11 games.

2. L.A. Lakers (38-9)

Kobe dethrones M.J. as the king of MSG, torching the Knicks for 61 in a 126-117 victory.

3. CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (37-8)

The LeBrons remain unbeatable at home with a 22-0 record at Quicken Loans Arena.

4. SAN ANTONIO SPURS (33-14)

Tim Duncan and Co. are 16-0 this season when they top the century mark.

5. ORLANDO MAGIC (36-11)

Orlando just got Mickael Pietrus back but now faces a greater test with Jameer Nelson out with a dislocated shoulder.

6. DENVER NUGGETS (31-16)

The Nuggets went 6-4 without ‘Melo and now hope to capitalize on his return.

7. PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS (30-17)

The Blazers just earned a quality win over the New Orleans Hornets, extending their winning streak to five.

8. HOUSTON ROCKETS (29-19)

Houston gets Tracy McInjured back from a sprained ankle - but for how long?

9. NEW ORLEANS HORNETS (28-17)

First Tyson Chandler, now Chris Paul. The banged-up Hornets have lost three straight.

10. DALLAS MAVERICKS (28-19)

Dirk and the gang reel off three straight wins to muster a top-10 appearance.

LOTTERY WATCH

THABEET MAKES STRIDES

Just two years ago, 7-foot-3 Hasheem Thabeet went to Connecticut as a project, and though he remains a work in progress, he has made significant strides. He’s a talented shot blocker and rebounder and has drawn comparisons to Dikembe Mutombo. Those might be a little generous, but given the growth he has shown thus far, Thabeet definitely has the potential to develop into a solid NBA player.

Some mock drafts project the Tanzania native as a good fit for the Wizards, but don’t believe them. Washington just drafted its superathletic, long-armed shot blocker of the future in JaVale McGee. According to insiders, the Wizards are happy with him despite his limited playing time and expect to address other areas in the draft.

THE BOTTOM FIVE

Washington 10-38 3-7 22.5

L.A. Clippers 10-38 2-8 22.5

Sacramento 11-39 1-9 15.6

Oklahoma City 11-37 5-5 11.9

Memphis 12-35 1-9 8.8

* Chances of landing No. 1 pick

NUMBER OF THE WEEK

61

Points scored by Kobe Bryant on Monday night in the Lakers’ win over the Knicks. Bryant - who was 19-for-31 from the field and 20-for-20 from the line - surpassed Bernard King’s 1984 record for the most points scored by a player (60) at Madison Square Garden.

TROPHY TRACKER

MVP

1. Kobe Bryant: See the above By the Numbers entry. To borrow a line from John Thompson, “Simply, simply the best.”

2. LeBron James: Only Larry Bird in 1987 put up as impressive numbers for the month of January as James’ 27.5 ppg, 9.6 rpg, 8.2 apg.

3. Dwight Howard: Super Dwight (20.6 ppg, 13.9 rpg, 3.0 bpg) has the shoulders to manage the weight of losing Nelson.

Rookie of the Year

1. O.J. Mayo: With 19.4 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 2.8 apg, the Memphis guard is head and shoulders above the rest of his class.

2. Russell Westbrook: The Thunder point guard (15.0 ppg, 4.9 apg, 4.4 rpg) is a blend of strength and quickness and actually plays defense.

3. Derrick Rose: With 16.7 ppg, 6.3 apg and 3.5 rpg, the Chicago point guard continues to boast the highest efficiency rating among rookies.


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