By GREG BEACHAM
AP Sports Writer
LOS ANGELES — The Los Angeles Lakers’ locker room had several conspicuous absences Sunday night. Kobe Bryant was at home in Orange County after surgery on his torn Achilles tendon, and Steve Nash hasn’t played in seven games.
Also absent? Doom, gloom — and any sense the Lakers are finished without Kobe.
Although Bryant’s season is over, Dwight Howard insists the Lakers’ fun has just begun.
“This is a great opportunity for myself and this team to show who we are,” Howard said. “We’ve got to give it everything we’ve got. We’re going to fight to the end and do our best. Despite whatever has happened this season, we’ve got a chance to win this next game, go into the playoffs and make history.”
The All-Star center radiated quiet optimism after the Lakers rallied in the fourth quarter to beat the powerful San Antonio Spurs, putting them on the brink of a playoff spot. Eighth-place Los Angeles needs only a win in its season finale Wednesday against Houston — or a loss by Utah in either of its final two games — to clinch another postseason berth.
Although the buzz was respectfully tempered just a day after Bryant’s surgery, the Lakers’ excitement at their persistent, well-rounded performance against a top opponent was impossible to suppress. Without the ball-dominating, sublimely talented guard who has defined the franchise for most of his 17-year career, the remaining Lakers emerged with confidence they can excel without Kobe — even if the rest of their season is only a couple of weeks long.
“This is a great opportunity, so there’s no need to get down about it,” Howard said. “This is a great opportunity for us to do something special and make believers out of everybody.”
Even after everything that’s gone wrong for the Lakers’ star-studded roster this season, Bryant’s abrupt loss seemed over the top. Perhaps that’s why the Lakers still absorbed it with grace — and why a team that’s on a 27-12 roll since late January believes it can keep going.
“We have character,” Pau Gasol said. “We have players that won’t give up, that won’t quit. We’ve been through quite a bit this season, but we’re still here, and we’re going to continue to be here as long as we can. We’re going to fight for our life every game. Now we have to figure out how to play at our best with the guys we do have.”
Mike D’Antoni suggested one of the Lakers’ problems has been their excess of “alpha dogs,” or players who are used to being the star of their own show. Bryant, Howard, Nash, Gasol, Metta World Peace and even sixth man Antawn Jamison have been the most important players on their own teams at various points in their careers, and D’Antoni thinks they never had time to learn complementary roles after the new coach arrived early in the regular season.
Bryant’s absence changes just about everything for the Lakers, who obviously run their offense through the ball-dominating guard currently third in the NBA in scoring. Howard is the biggest star in Bryant’s absence, but he insists everybody must assume part of Kobe’s enormous responsibilities.
Howard knows he must score more aggressively, and he knows he’ll get more shots from better spots. The Lakers already are working to get the ball quickly into the low post to Howard, who went aggressively at Tim Duncan and the Spurs’ big men from the opening minutes.
Gasol plans to assume more leadership and playmaking duties, particularly while Nash is still out of the lineup. His two championship rings give him added credibility.
While Jodie Meeks can’t match Bryant’s scoring punch while stepping into Kobe’s starting spot, he must be a consistent perimeter threat and a strong defender.
And when Nash returns to run D’Antoni’s preferred schemes, he’ll immediately be the Lakers’ most important ball-handler, no longer deferring to Bryant.
Steve Blake was the biggest beneficiary of Bryant’s absence on the perimeter Sunday night, scoring 23 points against the Spurs. The backup point guard already has a heavy workload in Nash’s absence, and he hit four 3-pointers while getting four assists.
“Kobe is a dominating player,” Blake said. “He’s going to have the ball in his hands, and you’re going to want to play through him. I think (against the Spurs), everybody had a green light to show what they can do. I think we all took advantage of it.”
Bryant assumed a playmaking role for long stretches of this season, but also seized chances to roll up big offensive performances, such as 47 points in Portland last week. He was named the Western Conference’s player of the week on Monday even after missing the Lakers’ final game of the week.
The Lakers can’t duplicate Bryant’s play, but Howard is eager to assume more leadership for the rest of Los Angeles’ season. An unrestricted free agent this summer, Howard sounds comfortable at the center of the Lakers’ new order.
“I watched Kobe all year,” Howard said. “I watched a lot of the things he’s done with this team, and just he’s not one of those guys who’s going to get in the locker room and be vocal. He’s just going to do everything on the court. That’s where he shows his leadership is just by how hard he plays, how hard he trains. Other guys are the vocal guys. I believe I can do both.
“I’ve been trying to do that for the whole year, and now with Kobe out, I understand that I have to do more and be more for this team. This is a great opportunity for me, and I believe I can do it.”