LOS ANGELES (AP) -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 center 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.''
ns 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 7-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.''
ers. 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 center. 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 percent.''
On paper, the Lakers look better now than at any time in recent years, with talent and depth at every position.
perience, from trial and error. Hopefully we can get there soon.''
Adding Bynum has caused one complication; Gasol has moved from center to a more natural power forward, and Odom moves from power forward to the bench - at least to begin with. Odom has started every game he's played in since the 2002-03 season, so he'll be making a major adjustment.
``Whatever they need me to do, I'll do - come off the bench, coach, I don't know, be a mascot,'' he said. ``I'm cool. It's important for me to keep that positive energy, be a positive influence in the locker room.''
With Bryant, Fisher, Bynum, Gasol and Vladimir Radmanovic the probable starters, Odom, Jordan Farmar, Sasha Vujacic, Trevor Ariza, Luke Walton, Josh Powell and Chris Mihm will come off the bench, giving the Lakers perhaps their best set of reserves ever.
``One of the things is getting everybody playing time,'' Jackson said. ``That just has to kind of work out on its own. But it's always nice to have options. At the start of the season, we say, well, guys will find their way around and usually, the attrition of the season helps out.
``We just want our team to have an opportunity to be able to perform as they are right now and see how the rotations work out.''
Bynum and Gasol seem to be fitting well together.
. ``And we should be able to have a lot of fun. We're ready for the challenge, we're ready to play well and play together.''
The Lakers haven't won a championship since Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal led them to three straight, from 2000-02. Bryant indicated how he felt about this team last week, when a day after hyperextending his right knee, he said: ``I saw the ring flash before my eyes. I was pretty worried.''
The two-time NBA scoring champion is fine heading into Tuesday night's season opener against rookie Greg Oden and the up-and-coming Portland Trail Blazers.
``We know we have a lot of ability,'' Bryant said. ``Our chemistry has always been great. Our biggest challenge is being great defensively.
``Are we ready to play? Oh, yeah.''

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