LOS ANGELES — A buzz went through Staples Center just over the mere sight of an injured LeBron James walking into the arena a few minutes into the game, but by the end Los Angeles Lakers fans were roaring over Brandon Ingram‘s best clutch performance of the season.
On James’ 34th birthday, the Lakers won their first game in three tries without the injured James and Rajon Rondo with a 121-114 win over the Sacramento Kings. And the young Lakers’ foursome of Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart showed what they can do without James, whose teams had lost 13 straight games when he wasn’t in the lineup, dating to March 16, 2016 when the Cavaliers beat the Mavericks.
“Just that we can do more as a young core and as a team,” Kuzma said when asked what he has learned during this short stretch without James and Rondo. “We are not just one player, we just got to eliminate little mistakes and we could have won all three games [without them]. For us, it is just continue to keep getting better and better and when those guys get back, hit the ground running.”
Of course, Kuzma agreed with locker room neighbors Hart and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope that the Lakers miss James (groin) and Rondo (finger surgery). Both veteran leaders are expected to miss several more games. But this win was another reminder of the potential the Lakers’ young core has. All of the Lakers’ prospects have struggled at times this season to adjust to playing alongside James and a new cast of veterans, with the spotlight often focused on Ingram’s play.
But with James watching on, Ingram had his best fourth quarter of the season. The third-year forward — playing as the primary ballhandler down the stretch with Ball sitting for the final 5 minutes, 24 seconds — scored seven straight points in the final 3:32 to help the Lakers erase a 110-103 deficit and his 3-pointer with 2:13 left snapped a 110-110 tie and put the Lakers up for good.
Ingram finished with 21 points, nine assists, seven rebounds and two blocks while shooting 9-for-13 from the field. Ingram’s seven points in clutch time on Sunday matched the total he has had in clutch time all season, according to ESPN Stats & Information research. “I think it’s the most comfortable I’ve felt for sure,” Ingram said. “Just me playing the game the right way, looking for guys, seeing guys.”
Against the Kings in Sacramento on Thursday, Ingram missed a free throw with 4.6 seconds left, allowing the Kings to steal a game that they trailed 104-89 with 6:44 remaining. Bogdan Bogdanovic hit a buzzer-beating 3-pointer to lift the Kings to a 117-116 win last week.
But this time, the Lakers were the ones who came back, trailing by as many as 11 points during the game. Kuzma also thrived as a playmaker with 18 points, nine rebounds and six assists. Caldwell-Pope hit five 3-pointers and scored 26 points and Hart added 22 points and seven rebounds. Perhaps the best gift Ingram and Kuzma gave James was how they showed signs of learning how to play a well-rounded game and setting up teammates like James has done.
“We just continue to show growth each and every game in tight situations that we are in,” Ingram said. “… There’s added emphasis every single night that we step on the floor of passing the ball and getting the best shot for our team. I don’t think we [Kuzma and Ingram] always do it because we naturally want to score the basketball.”
“But I think it was definitely the best way to play tonight.”