Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant may be the best and most talented player on his team's roster, but does that mean he is also the most pivotal figure in the Lakers' quest for the 2012 NBA championship?
The Lakers' Game 3 demolition at the hands of the Denver Nuggets in the first round of the NBA playoffs may suggest otherwise.
Bryant led the Lakers in scoring with 22 points on 7-of-23 shooting from the field, which was a far cry from his 31- and 38-point performances in the first two games of the series. But the Lakers' fate in Game 3 was likely sealed by center Andrew Bynum's inexplicable first-half performance.
Bynum posted the Lakers' first postseason triple-double in more than 20 years in the team's Game 1 win over the Nuggets, and he followed that performance with a 27-point, nine-rebound gem in Game 2.
After two quarters of Game 3, Bynum had exactly three rebounds and zero points and the Lakers entered the locker room trailing by 15 points after being down by as many as 24.
Bynum's first-half performance was flat and uninspired, but even more curious was his performance and the way the Lakers responded in the second half.
Bynum returned in the third quarter with intensity and focus, and his strong play in the paint completely changed the atmosphere of the game. The Lakers managed to whittle the Nuggets' lead to four points, but their cold fourth-quarter shooting ultimately doomed them.
The point that the Lakers even had a fighting chance in this game after being clearly out-played by the Nuggets might be a testament to the team's will, and the value of their most important player.
Don't get me wrong. I still believe Bryant can lead the Lakers to their 17th NBA championship, but he can't do it unless Bynum is the most dominant player on the court.
Bryant may arguably be the most skilled player in the postseason, but there is no other team in the playoffs that has a post player who poses the same type of challenge that Bynum does.
Bynum's size and strength eats up space and causes enough concerns on its own, but there is also plenty of skill and talent in that huge frame.
Great touch around the rim, the ability to finish with either hand from either shoulder and a growing defensive acumen are just a few of Bynum's greatest attributes, but he also has the passion to be a great player and he knows the goal is within reach.
The Nuggets' high-octane offense is only a preview of what the Lakers will face in the second round if they advance to face their assumed opponent, Oklahoma City.
The Thunder prefer to play a fast-pace style, and I would venture to say they are a little more talented than Denver on the perimeter and in the paint.
The key to the Lakers beating Denver now and possibly Oklahoma City later is controlling the tempo, and Bryant can't do that. But Bynum can.
Bynum finished Game 2 with 18 points and 12 rebounds on 5-of-11 shooting, even after his horrid first half, and his performance certainly fueled the Lakers' comeback in the third quarter.
Of course, there is an argument to be made that Bynum is thriving due to smaller competition, but every player Bynum may be potentially paired with in the future is smaller by comparison, and less talented.
Some people will accuse me of denigrating Bryant's value in the Lakers' quest for a title, but I'm not suggesting that Kobe is not important in that journey.
The only way the Lakers will prevail against the Nuggets and any other opponent down the road is by dictating the tempo and imposing their will, and the best way to do that is a steady diet of Bynum in the paint.