LOS ANGELES – Kobe Bryant was relieved to see the Los Angeles Lakers were still alive in the playoff race despite playing without him on Sunday night, but the bedridden star was far from satisfied.
"Gritty performance. At the doorstep. Gotta kick the door in now and finish the damn thing," Bryant told Yahoo! Sports in an email late Sunday night.
The "damn thing" is a playoff bid, and it's one step closer thanks to a critical 91-86 win over the the San Antonio Spurs in their first game since Bryant was lost for the season having suffered a torn left Achilles' tendon.
The Lakers (44-37) are fighting the Utah Jazz (42-38) for the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference. The win over the Spurs goes a long way toward sealing that berth. Now a win over the Houston Rockets on Wednesday or a loss by the Utah Jazz in either of their two final games against the Minnesota Timberwolves or Memphis Grizzlies would mean a playoff trip for the Lakers. The Jazz, however, own the tiebreaker after winning the season series 2-1.
"We can't look to anybody else for help," said Howard, who visited Bryant twice in the hospital Saturday. "We got to go out there and get this [Houston] game. And we need everybody behind us, and we're going to go out there and play as hard as we can. We believe that we can win."
Playing against what is arguably the Western Conference's best team in the Spurs, the odds were strongly against the Lakers.
They'd lost their best player, leading scorer and unquestionable leader in Bryant, who was averaging a blazing 30.5 points per game in six April contests. His replacement, Jodie Meeks, averaged just 7.9 points entering the Spurs game. Additionally, starting point guard Steve Nash is still out with a right hamstring injury. The Spurs had already beaten the Lakers twice this season with Bryant.
All that spelled disaster for the Lakers' playoff hopes.
But prior to Bryant's surgery on Saturday, he left Lakers general manager Mitch Kupchak a voicemail, which was then played for his teammates before that day's practice. In typical Bryant fashion, there were some expletives. He also said he believed in his teammates, that the season was not over and that they still had enough to compete well without him.
"I wouldn't have expected that from anybody else," Lakers forward Antawn Jamison said. "Even though his season's over with and he has to go through surgery, the only thing he is worried about is being there for his teammates and giving them support. It just says a lot about the type of guy that he is."
This win also said a lot about the type of guys the Lakers are without Bryant.
Without Bryant, it'd be easy for them to throw in the towel. After a season that included the death of owner Dr. Jerry Buss, major injuries to the starting five and other key players, a coaching change, chemistry drama and being swept by in-city rival Los Angeles Clippers, an early start to the offseason doesn't sound so bad.
But from the jump ball, the Kobe-less Lakers played as if they belonged against the NBA's elite. The truth is they played as if they wanted it more, against the Spurs of all teams. Howard was dominant at both ends, earning 26 points, 17 rebounds, three blocks and two steals. Guard Steve Blake made up for much of Bryant's offensive production by adding a surprising season-high 23 points. Jamison was also big off the bench with 15 points. The Lakers also held San Antonio to 37.1 percent shooting from the field and limited All-Star guard Tony Parker to four points on 1-of-10 shooting.
"They did a fine job under the circumstances," Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said. "They pulled together. They played together. They were unselfish, committed and physical defensively. And they did a fine job."
Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni said the best part of the win was how hard his team played and how several players stepped up to fill the void left by Bryant's injury.
Said D'Antoni: "We don't lack confidence. There are no deer in the headlights in that locker room."
Understandably, without Bryant, the Lakers' offense needs work.
With 20 more shots available (Bryant's season average), the Lakers shot 36.5 percent from the field. Gasol was awful offensively, shooting 3-of-17 to finish with seven points. The Spurs have one of the NBA's best defenses, sure, but the Lakers have plenty of room for improvement.
D'Antoni added that Bryant's loss will be felt the most offensively at the end of games.
"Doesn't matter if you struggle on offense as long as you go out there and play off good defense and play hard," Howard said. "We'll be fine."
The Lakers will be watching the Jazz game intently on Monday. Hosting "Fan Appreciation Night," the Timberwolves are in a fun and loose spoiler position in their final home game of the season despite an 0-3 record this season against the Jazz. Even with a win against the T'wolves, the Jazz would still have to beat a lively Memphis Grizzlies team which is in a fight for the West's No. 3 seed.
The Lakers, though, are still of the mindset that they need to take care of it themselves.
"We will watch [Monday]," D'Antoni said. "But we got to beat Houston. That's all we are focused with. That's all that counts."
The famous Laker Girls will sit on the baseline as they always do Wednesday for possibly the last game of the season. The Lakers' biggest cheerleader these days won't be in attendance, but his teammates can be damn sure he'll be watching.
"Whew!! Well done my dudes. Well done. Uno mas. Playoffs," wrote Bryant on his Twitter account Sunday night.
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