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Kobe-less Lakers move closer to playoff berth

The SportsXchange

LOS ANGELES -- With the realization sinking in that Kobe Bryant is gone and he's not coming back, at least for a while, the Los Angeles Lakers had to get back to work with their postseason hopes on the line.

No rest for the teary.

The Lakers resumed business with an entirely different squad on Sunday, their missing star casting a dark shadow.

Only in Los Angeles, stars dot the night sky, and the Lakers didn't have to look long and hard to find one.

They just had to turn to Dwight Howard, and he delivered in a crucial 91-86 win over the visiting San Antonio Spurs on Sunday night at Staples Center.

"We just played hard," said Howard, who led the way with 26 points and 17 rebounds. "We trusted each other and we dominated. We all know how to play basketball and we're going to show everybody what we've got."

With the win, Los Angeles increased its lead to 1.5 games over Utah for the Western Conference No. 8 seed, and the Lakers can lock up the playoff spot with a season-ending home victory over Houston on Wednesday.

For a team that just lost its heart and soul, Los Angeles appeared surprisingly serene on Sunday.

"We're not mentally messed up," Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said. "We know the job at hand and (we're) looking forward to the challenge. Dwight stepped way up. It's a good locker room in the sense of they know it's going to be tough. They know how hard it is, and we've done half the work."

Los Angeles needed a late-game run to seize control after the teams traded baskets for the first three quarters. San Antonio had a one-point first-quarter lead but the teams went into the half tied at 43 and stayed tied at 63 heading into the fourth before the Lakers took a nine-point advantage late in the game and closed out the Spurs to win their seventh of eight games.

Antawn Jamison and Jodie Meeks teamed for five 3-pointers early in the fourth quarter to spur a 21-9 run that gave Los Angeles the momentum and, ultimately, the win.

"They hit some threes, Meeks made some big threes and that was the game," San Antonio's Tony Parker said. "Both teams couldn't make shots tonight. We shot, what, 36 percent? It was just a defensive game tonight."

Bryant's season-ending injury -- a torn left Achilles tendon against Golden State on Friday that required surgery and will sideline him an estimated 6-to-9 months -- could have been the final curtain on the Lakers' season. But Los Angeles sealed up the two-point win over the Warriors by turning to Howard and Pau Gasol, and they did so again on Sunday, gaining an additional boost from an unlikely source.

Howard had 26 points, 17 rebounds and three blocks, Gasol added seven points, 16 rebounds and three blocks and Steve Blake chipped in an important 23 points for Los Angeles.

Blake had 14 of his points in the second quarter, hitting 4-of-4 3-point attempts while his teammates went just 3-for-16.

"A lot of that was because the Lakers' energy," San Antonio coach Gregg Popovich said. "It started out with Blake and it just permeated their whole group. I thought they were wonderful in that sense."

Added Gasol: "(Blake) was great. He was aggressive, knocked down some big shots. He just read the defense really well. Great game on his part."

Los Angeles won on Sunday, though, primarily turning because of its defense.

The Lakers held San Antonio to just 37.1 percent shooting, including Parker's 1-for-10 night, and built a 58-46 advantage on the glass.

Tim Duncan led the Spurs with 23 points and 10 rebounds and Danny Green added 16.

"Those big bodies, they did the job," said Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard, who had eight points and seven rebounds. "You've got a power forward, a five-man trying to get every rebound, and they're great players. They moved the ball, they were getting offensive rebounds a lot and we weren't stopping them.

"They want to get to the playoffs; they came out with energy and focus and got the win tonight."

NOTES: The Lakers remain plagued by injuries aside from Bryant as Steve Nash (hamstring) and Jordan Hill (hip) missed the game and Gasol (foot), Howard (shoulder), Jamison (wrist) and World Peace (knee) played through pain. ... With Bryant sidelined for the remainder of the year, the Lakers re-signed Andrew Goudelock from the NBA D-League. Goudelock played in 40 games with Los Angeles last season but was waived on Oct. 27. ... Manu Ginobili (hamstring) and Boris Diaw (back) remain out for the Spurs. ... San Antonio entered the game with a 2-0 lead in the season series after winning 2-of-3 from the Lakers in 2011-12. ... The Spurs entered the game 7-3 against the Lakers in their last 10 and San Antonio is an impressive 14-11 against Los Angeles at Staples Center. ... The Lakers came into the game 65-39 without Bryant in the lineup during his 17-year NBA career.
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