Brandon Ingram had to laugh it off.
An airball is one thing, but his airball from the free-throw line on the Lakers’ first possession drew the unforgiving ire of the crowd at Madison Square Garden on Monday night.
A different kind of player might have let that start dictate the course of the rest of the game. But Ingram balled it up like a piece of paper, threw it away and then rose to the challenge before him.
“Soon as it came off my hand I knew it was short,” Ingram said with a small chuckle. “Mentally I was just trying to get back out there. I think my next shot went in. I just felt great. I felt great about being out there on a legendary floor like that and I just kept playing.”
The Lakers (18-36) used their 121-107 win over the New York Knicks (22-31) to turn toward their future. Lakers Coach Luke Walton sat the team’s two marquee free agents, Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov, and started Ingram at small forward for Deng and Tarik Black at center for Mozgov. Together, Mozgov and Deng have contracts worth $136 million.
Walton guarantees nothing for this young starting lineup, but Ingram, Black, Julius Randle, D’Angelo Russell and Nick Young are the Lakers’ starters until further notice.
Ingram, the 19-year-old rookie, played 32 minutes and scored 14 points with seven rebounds and two assists. Black had nine points, 10 rebounds and a game-high plus/minus rating of 34. Lou Williams led the Lakers with 22 points. Black had nine points, 10 rebounds and a game-high plus/minus rating of 34.
Deng finished the game with seven points, three rebounds and one assist in 24 minutes. Mozgov did not play.
“I don’t know yet,” Mozgov said when asked for his reaction. “We just tried to do something better for the team. It’s hard to tell you right now what’s really going on in my mind.”
Before pulling the trigger on the change, Walton had conversations with Jim Buss, the Lakers’ executive vice president of basketball operation, and General Manager Mitch Kupchak. Under their guidance, the Lakers signed Mozgov to a four-year, $64 million contract this offseason and Deng to a four-year, $72 million contract. They also drafted Ingram second overall.
Walton said both men were supportive of the decision.
“It always comes back to what I think is best for the team,” Walton said. “Not only right at this moment, but the future of the team. We try to make our decisions based on that, not on the salaries.”
At a shootaround on Monday morning, he shared the news with his players. Mozgov said he had “a lot” of questions but declined to share what those questions were.
“Maybe I gotta find some answers by myself,” he said.
Deng said his reaction to the news didn’t matter.
It was Ingram’s 15th start of the season, but more weight attached to this one.
The airballed three-pointer marked the only hint of trepidation from the 19-year-old rookie.
Ingram shook off the early nerves quickly. His first score was a three-pointer. His second was another. It came after he fought for a difficult defensive rebound, found teammate Nick Young open for a three that Young missed, then got the ball back later in the possession.
Against an energetic Lakers group, the Knicks trailed by as many as 27 points in the first half before the Lakers took a 61-45 lead into halftime. Ivica Zubac, the first center off the Lakers’ bench, had a career high four blocks by halftime.
“I don’t know if it was the new lineup but we got a great team effort,” Walton said.
Said Black: “I think the sky’s the limit for us. If we do it together, there’s nobody’s gym that we walk into that won’t fear us.”
For the Lakers, Monday’s game began a journey that is at least a step in that direction.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli