With Kobe Bryant out for the rest of the season for the Los Angeles Lakers, Dwight Howard has already reportedly stepped into Bryant's role of vocal leader behind the scenes, according to Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports.
The Lakers (43-37) will get their first opportunity to show how that dynamic translates on the court, against the Western Conference's second-best team no less, at 9:30 p.m. Sunday against the San Antonio Spurs (58-21).
The game could also serve as a playoff preview. The Spurs trail the Oklahoma City Thunder by a half game in the race for the No. 1 seed in the West. If the Spurs get the top seed and the Lakers, who have a one game lead over the Utah Jazz for the eighth and final playoff spot, can hold on over the last two games, the two teams will face each other in the first round.
Although Bryant is the biggest name among the injuries headed into this game and Steve Nash is also unlikely to play, the Spurs have their own issues. Manu Ginobili has missed seven straight games with a hamstring injury. Boris Diaw is out after having surgery to remove a cyst, Tony Parker just returned Friday after missing two games due to injury and the team also decided to release Stephen Jackson on Friday, so the Spurs could have depth issues against the Lakers.
Despite Bryant's injury, the Lakers are getting good performances of late from their frontcourt of Howard and Pau Gasol. Gasol is averaging 19 points and 10 rebounds per game in April, including a triple-double on Friday against the Golden State Warriors. Howard is averaging 20.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and two blocks per game this month while shooting 66 percent.
The Lakers could pick up a half game in the standings on the idle Jazz with a win Sunday. The Lakers host the Houston Rockets, another playoff team, in their final game of the season Wednesday. The Jazz finish up with two road games, at Minnesota on Monday and at Memphis on Wednesday.