"It's a great opportunity for me to lead this team and I feel confident in myself, and the guys are confident in me," Howard said. "I want to do the best I can every single night."
In the Lakers' first game since Bryant suffered the injury, Howard scored 26 points on nine-for-15 shooting and had 17 rebounds and three blocks to lead his team to a crucial 91-86 win over San Antonio. If the Lakers beat Houston on Wednesday or Utah loses one of its two remaining games, against Minnesota and Memphis, the Lakers will make the playoffs.
Howard said he learned a lot from Bryant this season about how to be a good leader.
"I watched Kobe all year, I watched a lot of the things he's done with this team," Howard said. "He's not one of those guys who's going to get in the locker room and be vocal. He's just going to do everything on the court. That's the way he shows his leadership, just by how hard he plays, how hard he trains. Other guys are the vocal guys. I believe I can do both. I've been trying to do that for the whole year and now with Kobe out, I understand I have to do more and be more for this team. This is a great opportunity for me and I believe I can do it."
Howard was a force on offense and defense but a liability at the free-throw line. The Spurs began using the Hack-a-Howard strategy in the third quarter, sending him to the free throw line 11 times in the period. He made only four.
Howard said he made a point of not letting his free-throw shooting get him down. It's a strategy that he learned from Bryant.
"[Bryant] has done a great job of that and not allowing other teams to see your frustration," Howard said. "He's good at it. It's just one thing that's going to help me grow as a player. It's not letting little things affect me, at least not showing it to the point where my teammates feel as though I'm not focused on the game."
Howard acknowledged that it took him a while to learn how to play alongside Bryant.
"Yeah, it took 80 games," Howard said, laughing. "No, I mean Kobe is a different type of player, just like I said, just sitting back and watching Kobe and how he handled himself the whole year was great for me to watch."
And now Howard is ready to accept the responsibility that comes with playing without him.
"We understand that Kobe is out, but we've all done some special things in our career so we can't hang our heads," Howard said. "We gotta believe in each other, we gotta go out and play hard. I believe that we can still win. There's no doubt in my mind."