Oddsmaker say Kobe Bryane and the L.A. Lakers are sitting pretty in the NBA West. Associated Press file photo
LOS ANGELES - Andrew Bynum celebrated his 21st birthday Monday, making him of legal age to drink champagne. The Los Angeles Lakers hope to be sharing the bubbly with their man-child centre next June.
Bynum was the missing ingredient 4 1/2 months ago, when he could only watch and hope as Boston dominated the paint in overwhelming the Lakers 131-92 in Game 6 of the NBA finals, giving the Celtics their first championship in 22 years.
Even the presence of MVP Kobe Bryant couldn't put the Lakers over the top.
Bynum is healthy now, and that's one of several reasons the Lakers look to be the team to beat this season.
Coach Phil Jackson has expressed that kind of confidence, saying: "The idea that home-court advantage is an important aspect through the playoffs is something that lingers in our mind. We want to put ourselves in position to do better than we did."
The Lakers went 57-25 to win the Western Conference last season, giving them home-court advantage throughout the playoffs until they played the Celtics. So Jackson's observation means he's already pointing to the finals, at least in some regard.
"That's like an old wound," Jackson said regarding the Lakers' 39-point loss June 17 at Boston. "Maybe we were overmatched."
They were in that game, but with Bynum up front along with fellow seven-footer Pau Gasol, that shouldn't happen often, assuming the Lakers remain healthy.
"We want to close the gap between potential and expectation and what we should be doing, and meet it with what we can do, and what we actually will do," guard Derek Fisher said. "And we feel capable of being the best team in the NBA from Day 1 to Day 100-and-whatever, and on into the playoffs."
That didn't seem possible a year ago at this time, when Bryant wanted out and the Lakers began the season on shaky ground. But after a 9-8 start, they took off, winning 48 of their last 65 games.
"People had us picked to not make the playoffs last year, and by the time we got together in training camp, we kind of knew something special was going to happen," forward Lamar Odom said. "We kind of got in our mind that we wanted to be one of the best teams in the league, if not the best team.
"We want to put ourselves in position to represent the West again in the championship round. Shoot for the moon, you might hit a star."
Bynum sustained a season-ending knee injury Jan. 13, just as he was establishing himself as one of the NBA's finest inside players. The Lakers acquired Gasol from the Memphis Grizzlies three weeks later to fill the void, and they went from there to win the West and make the finals.
Gasol did an excellent job, but when it came to playing the Celtics, the Lakers lacked the inside bulk at both ends of the court to win a best-of-seven series. Bynum would seem to be a solution to that problem, bringing the necessary rebounding and shot-blocking.
If things have changed significantly for Bryant in the past 12 months, the same can be said for Bynum, who was averaging 13.1 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.06 blocked shots when he was injured.
"The biggest difference from last year, you know coming in, you're going to get minutes," he said. "Last year, I was probably about the third-string centre. That's a big difference. You just approach it a little different with your mind-set."
Regarding his health, Bynum said: "I feel good, 100 per cent."