DENVER -- Andrew Bynum has been watching and preparing.
He has been preparing to play defense in the NBA Finals.
Here's what Bynum had to say about the Eastern Conference finals, which he has been watching not just for fun, but to discern subtleties about Orlando's Dwight Howard and Cleveland's LeBron James.
"With Dwight, you've got to keep him as far away from the basket as possible and make him make shots," Bynum said. "And obviously somebody has got to stop LeBron. I think the other night he got something ridiculous like 41 points off 2-for-19 jump shots outside the paint, which is ridiculous, so somebody definitely has got to step up and get in front of him (in the paint)."
There's a simple reason that Bynum is studying: "With those teams, I think if you take one of their key players away, you have a good chance of winning," he said.
The fact that Bynum is thinking of himself as a potential defensive stopper in the NBA Finals is about the best news his teammates have heard since Bynum agreed to put a protective sleeve over his clunky knee brace so it would stop banging their legs in practice. Bynum's injury absence last June against Boston, to re-illustrate the big picture, left a gigantic void inside that was exploited not just by Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett, but even Leon Powe.
Bynum was scoreless in the first half Friday night in the Lakers' clinching Game 6 victory in Denver, yet he was an absolute key to the team's success because of his defensive presence.
Pau Gasol and Bynum were outstanding in their attentiveness, helping teammates seamlessly to protect the paint and hold Denver to 3-of-11 shooting to start the game. With Nuggets fans gearing up for the home team to win the first quarter just as happened in the first two games at Pepsi Center, the Lakers controlled the early minutes. They led, 11-8, after Denver's Kenyon Martin made 1 of 2 foul shots granted from Bynum's hard foul that angered Martin but was just the kind Bynum's teammates love to see.
Bynum left the game at that point with his second foul, and the Lakers' offense perked up with Lamar Odom out there ... but the Lakers' defense immediately fell off. The Nuggets finished the first quarter making 5 of 7 field-goal attempts and then started the second quarter making 4 of 6. That 9-for-13 shooting stretch (69.2 percent) gave Denver a 31-30 lead, and Phil Jackson called time out and brought Bynum back to replace Gasol.
Denver promptly missed 10 of its next 11 shots, and the Lakers found out just how they can have that elusive killer instinct: with Bynum standing tall and brandishing a menacing stop sign over his head in the paint.
The Nuggets never seriously threatened in the second half - just the sort of total control the Lakers wanted to establish before the NBA Finals. Denver had absolutely had the better of the play most of the series as Bynum gradually built himself back, knee- and confidence-wise, to this point: Entering
Game 6, Denver had won 11 quarters to the Lakers' five (with four quarters played even).
Then the Lakers dropped the hammer on Denver's offense the rest of that second quarter and early in the third, with Nuggets coach George Karl spending one entire timeout talking about how timid Denver had gotten, repeatedly settling for perimeter shots for fear of their interior shots getting changed by Bynum. That's why Jackson and assistant coach Frank Hamblen actually applauded Bynum as he approached them on the bench at the end of his first run on the court of the third quarter.
The Lakers led, 71-55, at the time. It was time for Bynum's first NBA Finals.
Asked about enjoying what is to come, he said: "Winning it is enjoying it. Losing it definitely is not."
For the moment late Friday night, Bynum was joyous - completely unbothered that he was the only Laker willing to be uncool and wear his Western Conference championship shirt and hat to the team bus - acknowledging that this meant more to him than last season, when he never made it back from his midseason knee injury.
"Being an active participant, it's way better," he said.
And again, he intends to stay active in June and do what the team needs from him, even if the right knee still doesn't have its full explosion back.
"We've gotta - gotta - play defense," Bynum said. "That's the big thing. If we move the ball on offense, we'll be fine - against anybody. It's just all about our defense and not letting people get to the cup."
Bynum carried an anemic line of two points on 1-of-6 shooting with no rebounds, no assists and one block until the final meaningless moments of this game. We saw in January that Bynum can pile up numbers to make the fantasy-basketball trackers drool over their space bars, but the same thing holds now that everyone understood entering this season:
The Lakers can easily score without Bynum. To defend to the reaches of their greatest aspirations, they need Bynum.