With Kobe Bryant, the Lakers are contenders.
But without a healthy Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum, there will be no parades down Figueroa.
Which is why you can now exhale, Lakers fans. Both Bynum and Gasol are well enough to play for the Lakers on Tuesday night against a depleted Utah squad. This is a game both could sit out and the Lakers might still win, but the fact both are going says a lot about how good they feel.
Lakers fans still may be holding their breath the next six games, going to church and lighting a candle that their big men remain healthy. Kobe is Kobe, but it took a fully healthy Bynum and Gasol after the All-Star Break -- and a renewed focus on defense -- for the Lakers to get hot. They are 17-2 since the All-Star break and when you talk to people around the other contenders -- San Antonio, Boston, Chicago and Miami -- they know the path to a ring goes through Los Angeles. Again.
So long as Bynum and Gasol are healthy.
Which is why Sunday against Denver was scary -- Larmar Odom fell into Bynum and tweaked the big center's surgically repaired knee, and as a precaution, the Lakers sat Bynum the rest of the game. The result was Odom trying to box out Kenyon Martin at the end (and not getting the help he was supposed to from Ron Artest, but that's another story) and Martin making the game-clinching tip-in for the feisty Nuggets.
But Monday, Bynum was back at practice, just fine, his bulky knee brace having saved the day.
Gasol's injury was scarier. He was diving for a dunk when he took a hard (but clean) foul from Nene and landed awkwardly, his knee bending under him. He ended up going to the locker room but came back out and played. Still, Gasol had swelling after the game and an MRI Monday, which showed a bone bruise. The impact of a bone bruise can vary widely.
At this point, being healthy and rested is what matters most for the Lakers, as they are less than two weeks from the start of the playoffs. If San Antonio wins in Atlanta on Tuesday, the Lakers will stand little chance of catching them for best record in the West (even though the Lakers and Spurs face off next week). After that (and an effort to catch the Bulls for second best record overall), expect Phil Jackson to rest some key players.
Because health and rest are what matter if you really want a parade downtown again.