Kobe Bryant seemed to be the one constant during a tumultuous season for the Los Angeles Lakers. Now, they'll have to conclude their chase for a playoff spot without him.
In its first game since Bryant suffered a devastating injury, Los Angeles seeks another crucial victory Sunday night as it hosts the San Antonio Spurs in a possible first-round playoff preview.
"We know he's out, but we can't put our heads down like it's over with," Lakers center Dwight Howard said. "We have to go out there and play. We have a lot of talented guys on this team. I think we can accomplish something great, with or without Kobe."
Bryant's initial fear -- that he sustained a torn Achilles tendon in Friday's 118-116 home win over Golden State -- was confirmed after the game, and he underwent season-ending surgery Saturday.
The 34-year-old superstar is in for an arduous rehab process, but said he is aiming to be ready for the start of next season even though recovery time is expected to be six to nine months. That still leaves the Lakers (43-37) without one of the game's best players for the final two games of their schedule, which concludes at home against Houston on Wednesday.
They own a one-game advantage over Utah for the Western Conference's final playoff spot but lost that head-to-head tiebreaker, so the Lakers must finish at least a game better than the Jazz to make the playoffs for an eighth straight year. Wins in each of their final two games would secure a postseason berth, while a loss in either would see them anxiously awaiting how the Jazz finish with games at Minnesota on Monday and Memphis on Wednesday.
Bryant's injury is the latest and most devastating in a dysfunctional Lakers season that has also seen prolonged absences by Pau Gasol and Steve Nash, who has missed six in a row with a hamstring injury and is listed as doubtful for Sunday.
"We're fueled by these injuries," said Gasol, who had his first triple-double of the season Friday with 26 points, 11 rebounds and 10 assists. "We want to take on the challenge and prove we're a good team even without our best player."
Without Bryant and his averages of 27.3 points, 6.0 assists and 5.6 rebounds, Jodie Meeks will assume the starting shooting guard role. Meeks has averaged 7.5 points and shot 33.3 percent in eight starts.
If Los Angeles does grab the West's No. 8 seed, it could begin the playoffs against San Antonio, which is a half-game behind Oklahoma City for the conference's best record but has a game in hand.
The Spurs (58-21) guaranteed they would finish no lower than the second seed with Friday's 108-101 win over the Kings coupled with Denver's loss to Dallas.
But San Antonio's frontcourt will also be slightly short-handed moving forward as the club decided to waive Stephen Jackson on Friday, and Boris Diaw is expected to miss three to four weeks after undergoing surgery to remove a cyst from his lumbar spine. Manu Ginobili (strained hamstring) has sat out the last seven games and will miss the final three of the regular season.
"We probably look a little thin, but life goes on," coach Gregg Popovich said.
Friday did see Tony Parker return after missing two straight games and three of four with a sore neck. He had 22 points and 10 assists for his 17th double-double of the season, two more than his previous career best.
Parker is averaging 23.0 points while shooting 58.8 percent in the last four meetings with the Lakers -- all San Antonio wins. Two of those came this season -- before the All-Star break -- as Gasol and Howard missed one and combined for just 23 points in the other.
Gasol and Howard will be tasked with slowing down Tim Duncan, who is averaging 22.2 points, 10.9 rebounds and 2.8 blocks over his last 13 games.
"Timmy shows up and does his job. Tony shows up and does his job. There's not a lot of gossiping about the situation," Spurs guard Gary Neal said of Jackson's departure. "It is what it is and we try to prepare ourselves to win games."
The Spurs enter Sunday night's game having lost each of their last 5 games on the road. It's their longest road losing streak of the season, and tied for their third-longest road losing skid since the start of the 1998-99 season.