By Lee Jenkins
LOS ANGELES – The Lakers treated the Sixth Man Award as if it were the first trophy they ever won, the entire team crowding into a hotel ballroom Tuesday afternoon, Kobe Bryant leading a standing ovation, Lamar Odom tearing up at the podium as he gave thanks. General manager Mitch Kupchak presented Odom with the bronze statue in a ceremony before Wednesday night’s game and then it was placed in the Staples Center concourse so fans could pose alongside it and take pictures.
For a team with 16 championships, this may sound like overkill, but the Lakers were not celebrating the award as much as they were honoring the man who won it. When they made Odom their sixth man two years ago, he wondered aloud if coach Phil Jackson bumped his head, but that was the extent of his protest. He accepted the move, and after two seasons perfecting it, finally received the validation he has sought his entire career.
The Lakers had reason to worry about Odom this season. He is famously inconsistent, and after playing for the United States at the FIBA World Championship, filming a reality show with wife Khloe Kardashian and launching a cologne line, some feared he would be fatigued and distracted. But as one associate of Odom put it, “Lamar is best when he’s busy.” Odom came to training camp in shape after the World Championship and emboldened by the leadership role he assumed there. He put together his best season, shooting a career-high 53 percent, and was arguably the most consistent Laker outside of Kobe Bryant.
After Odom grabbed one rebound in a Game 1 loss to New Orleans on Sunday, familiar questions surfaced about his ability to focus despite the hubbub around him in the L.A. media. He admitted Wednesday afternoon that he was stung by the criticism, and as a rebuke, he scored 16 points and grabbed seven rebounds to help the Lakers even the first-round series with an 87-78 win in Game 2.
The Lakers led by only eight points late in the third quarter, when Odom made two plays that no other 6-10 power forward can. He drove from the top of the arc, looked off a defender like Magic Johnson and threw in a soft floater. On the next possession, he drove coast-to-coast and sank a fadeaway bank shot. The Lakers led by 12 and were never seriously threatened again.
“He showed why he was Sixth Man of the Year,” Hornets point guard Chris Paul said.
The reality show, the cologne, the billboards featuring Odom and Kardashian make him an easy target, both inside the locker room and out. But Odom remains the most popular Laker, beloved by teammates for his genial nature and generous spirit, which made it impossible for him to stew over his demotion two years ago. Because Odom was willing to come off the bench, the Lakers could start Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol, keeping all three pillars of their dominant frontcourt. Although Gasol was as ineffective in Game 2 as he was in Game 1 – he is now 4-for-19 in the series – Bynum and Odom combined for 33 points and 18 rebounds. The Lakers, who were improbably outscored in the paint in Game 1, finally exploited their stark size advantage.
Former Hornets assistant coach Dave Miller, now an analyst for 710 ESPN radio in Los Angeles, drew up a Lakers scouting report before the series that read: “You must make CP3 a scorer or playmaker … not both.” The Lakers are still struggling to do that, as Paul scored 20 points and added nine assists, but he did not take over this game like he did the last one. With Kobe Bryant among the committee of defenders taking turns on Paul, the Lakers limited the Hornets’ pick-and-roll, and took them from three turnovers to 16.
“That was the defense that we played late in the season when we had our little run,” said Jackson, referring to the Lakers’ 17-1 spurt after the All-Star break. “That’s basically what we have to do to win a game like this.”
The Lakers do not win often when Gasol and Bryant are a combined 5-for-20, when neither scores more than 11 points and when the team fails to crack 90. But the Lakers believe they are deeper than when they won the championship last season. The key to their bench, in this title run and the past two, is Odom. Over the past nine months he has won a gold medal and a bronze statue and proved that he is capable of spurring the Lakers to a much bigger trophy.