Kobe on future: ‘I’ll be back’

EL SEGUNDO, Calif. — It was a somber feeling around the Lakers’ locker room Friday night and at their practice facility Saturday, the realization that Kobe Bryant would no longer be there to rescue them on a seemingly nightly basis having sunk in with devastating swiftness.

It could have been much worse.

Sure the team lost its best player and motivating force, but there’s was the immediate thought that Bryant may have had enough of the physical sacrifices and mental grind — the torn Achilles’ tendon having pushed him over the edge and into retirement.

That worry lasted just a few minutes.

He made it clear that he wasn’t retiring due to the injury suffered in the 118-116 win over Golden State.

“I’m thinking about all the work I put in and I’m pissed — and a little down,” Bryant said. “But then I saw (my) kids and I know I have to set an example for them, and I started getting fired up right away. I’ll do whatever I have to to beat this and I’ll be back.”

But after putting in an entire offseason of extreme conditioning and dieting so he could carry the team when it needed him, was he weary of the work? Was he ready to back off a few months and have his surgery during the summer, possibly delaying his return until very late in the 2013-14 season — if at all next year?

He answered that question by having an MRI very early Saturday morning, confirming the total tear of the Achilles and heading into surgery immediately.

Following the successful surgery, Lakers confirmed Bryant will be sidelined six to nine months.

The NBA’s fourth all-time leading scorer, Bryant currently ranks third in the NBA in scoring this season, averaging 27.3 points, to go along with 5.6 rebounds, a team-high 6.0 assists, 1.36 steals and 38.6 minutes in 78 games this season.

So Bryant is gone until Opening Day of next season at the earliest, and the Lakers have two critical games left in the regular season that will decide their playoff fate: Sunday they’ll host San Antonio and they’ll finish up the the schedule on Wednesday night with Houston at Staples Center,

If they win both, they’re in no matter what any other team does. A loss combined with a Utah win could put the Lakers on the outside looking in. Pau Gasol says that having control of their own fate means nothing but the Lakers having to win two more games — without Kobe Bryant.

“Kobe’s always been the focal point of our offense,” Gasol said, “and now Dwight (Howard) and I will have to pick up a lot more of the load. Kobe’s absence is going to open up a an opportunity for a number of the other guys to step up.

“It can’t be one or two guys. It’s has to be a collective effort, and if we do it with the players that we have and the talent we have, we’ll be fine.”

Gasol is satisfied with the way his game has come around — coincidentally just at the right time.

“The ball has been coming my way in the right place,” he said, “and I’m healthier than I’ve been for a while. I think we have a strong team, a deep team, with a lot of high-quality weapons — players who will play at a high level.

“We want to take on the challenge and prove that we’re a great team even without our best player.”