After losing Kobe Bryant Friday night to a season-ending injury, the Los Angeles Lakers players were very solemn. Losing their best player was something they never pictured, and now that it was a reality, it was heart-breaking. Dwight Howard knew how important the final games of the season are, and he set his mind to focusing on it.
“We know what we have to do,” Howard told ESPN. “We know he’s out, but we can’t put our heads down like it’s over with. We have to go out there and play. We have a lot of talented guys on this team, and I think we can accomplish something great with or without Kobe. So we can’t hang our heads down because he’s gone. We have to go out there and play."
Howard has often been looked to as the future of the Lakers. After Bryant retires, it is hoped that Howard will take the reins of the franchise. With Bryant sustaining such a serious injury, Howard's time came sooner than expected. And Howard accepted the challenge willingly.
“That’s why they brought me here,” Howard said.
Howard showcased his leadership Sunday night as he rallied the Lakers to a 91-86 victory over the San Antonio Spurs. Throughout the game, there were several keys that allowed each team to succeed and have a shot to win down the stretch.
Fast-break points: San Antonio really capitalized in transition, which allowed them to outscore the Lakers in fast-break points 17 to 7. Because of his speed, Gary Neal was a key-contributor in the open court, often times pulling up for the mid-range jumper, or dishing it to a teammate.
Point-guard play: San Antonio's MVP candidate, Tony Parker, really struggled against the Lakers on Sunday. Parker shot 1-10 from the floor, ending with a mere four points. Parker missed shots he normally makes consistently, and never could develop a good rhythm on the floor.
Lakers point-guard Steve Blake caught fire early. He had 18 points at half-time and set the tempo early for the Lakers, who were in desperate need of a spark. Blake ended the game with 23 points.
Dwight Howard: The Lakers rallied behind Howard, and he was clearly the best player on the floor. Howard had 26 points, 17 rebounds, chipping in three blocks and two steals as well. Offensively, Howard was superb in the paint. Defensively, he protected the rim, and altered shots. His energy on both ends of the court energized his teammates and his will to win rubbed off on them.
With the Lakers win over the Spurs, they move to a game and a half ahead of the Utah Jazz for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Western Conference.
When Howard was asked in his post-game interview what the Lakers have to do in their last game to get to the playoffs, his response was simple and serious.
"Just go dominate." Howard said.
And dominate they must to sneak into that final playoff spot. If the Lakers win their final game, they are guaranteed the eighth spot. If they lose, then Utah must lose one of their two remaining games. But Howard isn't worried.
"We all know how to play basketball." Howard said, "We're gonna show everyone what we got."
The Lakers will return to action Wednesday night for their season finale against the Houston Rockets.
For additional Lakers news, you can follow Mitch Kunzler on Twitter at: @MitchKunzler