Lakers pull together, win first game post-Kobe

LOS ANGELES — Kobe Bryant’s absence was obvious. The Lakers were a team missing their most important piece Sunday night, almost limping at times in a game they had to win.
 
They were far from perfect, but given the strange circumstances, there was something admirable about what they did, how they endured to beat the San Antonio Spurs 91-86 at Staples Center.
 
They did it without Kobe. With their postseason hopes still undetermined. With no real idea whom they would go to when they needed a basket.
 
It was awkward, Pau Gasol acknowledged, knowing that Kobe wasn’t in the building. He had been so vital to every game, to every Lakers win, that it didn’t feel the same to walk on the court and not see him there.

“The feel of the game was different just because we’re so used to him
being there and making plays and creating stuff for him and for others,”
Gasol said. “So it was awkward at first.”

Bryant tweeted before the game that he planned to make a call to the locker room at halftime to offer suggestions. He did, but not to coach Mike D’Antoni.
 
Gasol got the call.
 
Asked
what Bryant said, Gasol answered, “Just stay aggressive, don’t worry
about the shots that I didn’t make. Just stay aggressive.”
 
It was a message that resonated through the entire team.
 
The Lakers found their playmakers at various times — Dwight Howard scoring early, Steve Blake hitting three-pointers, Antawn Jamison draining shots from outside, Gasol grabbing rebounds despite a horrendous shooting night.
 
Their collective effort could not have come at a more opportune time. The Lakers (44-37) have all but secured the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, moving 1½ games in front of the Utah Jazz with one game to play.
 
They can lock up the eighth seed if the Jazz (42-38) lose Monday night to the Minnesota Timberwolves. A Jazz win, however, means the Lakers would have to win their regular-season finale Wednesday night against the Houston Rockets at home. If the two teams tie, the Jazz hold the tiebreaker.
 
“You can’t look at anybody else for help,” Howard said. “We’ve got to go out there and get this game and play as hard as we can. We believe we can win.”
 
They fact they expect to do it without Bryant, who underwent surgery on his left Achilles tendon Saturday, might be fantasy. But with wins in seven of their last eight games, they have momentum.
 
“You expect them backed into a corner and then bring it as they did, trying to find their new identity without him,” Spurs forward Tim Duncan said. “They got some really good play from Steve, and Antawn made some big shots for them.”
 
Blake essentially picked up Bryant’s scoring slack, finishing with 23 points, just two off his career high, and making 4 of 8 3-pointers. The Lakers missed 14 of their first 18 3-point attempts but then made 5 of 6 during one fourth-quarter stretch.
 
It was a game in which players stepped up at different times, not a game in which Kobe scored or missed and the team rose or fell with his shooting.
 
“Kobe is a dominating player,” Blake said. “He’s going to have the ball in his hands, and you want to play through him. Tonight, I think everyone felt they had a green light to show what they can do, and I think everyone took advantage of it.”
 
Gasol was the exception, making just 3 of 17 attempts and misfiring on almost every short-range shot he tried. But he had 16 rebounds to go along with Howard’s 17.
 
“It’s frustrating when the ball doesn’t go in like it usually does,” Gasol said. “You’ve got to keep playing, you’ve got to shake it off and affect the game in whichever way you can — defensively, getting rebounds, making plays for others but still being aggressive.”

Bottom line, Bryant approved of the hard-fought win.