Brandon Ingram watched the game from the bench in street clothes. Josh Hart watched from a television studio in El Segundo, where he was making a guest appearance, having stayed home from his road trip as his hand recovers from surgery.
Their team has gone on without them for nearly three weeks and weathered it reasonably well. But, as Monday’s game in Indianapolis showed, the dam breaks eventually. The Lakers lost to the Indiana Pacers 110-100 splitting their season series 1-1. The loss, the Lakers’ third in a row, caused the team to fall to 31-39, while Indiana improved to 41-30.
“I give our guys a lot of credit for picking up that slack, but it gets hard,” Lakers coach Luke Walton said. “Even looking back to when I played, if Kobe [Bryant] or someone like that, Lamar [Odom], was out,we’d all pick it up. But after three or four games all those things that really good players make look easy, start to get a lot more difficult. But our guys have done a really nice job of continuing to fight and give ourselves a chance to win.”
Kyle Kuzma led the Lakers with 27 points, Julius Randle added 21 and Brook Lopez scored 23. The Pacers were led by Myles Turner, who scored 21, and Victor Oladipo, who scored 20 points. Lonzo Ball finished with four points, eight assists, four turnovers and two steals.
The Lakers gave themselves that chance early. They jumped out to a 12-point lead in the first quarter, making 16 of 24 shots and outscoring the Pacers 37-29. Having identified a mismatch in the frontcourt, the Lakers played through Brook Lopez early, and their center made the most of the opportunity, scoring 13 points in the first quarter.
The Pacers began to chip away at their lead in the second quarter with the help of five turnovers by the Lakers during that period. Then in the third quarter, Indiana took control of the momentum.
“They probably got yelled at by their coach and they were the aggressor on both ends to start the second half,” Isaiah Thomas said. “And that kind of dictated the whole rest of the game.”
Walton prefers to use a deeper rotation, and did for most of the season. He prioritized keeping his younger players’ minutes down around 30 per game, and some veterans’ minutes were limited just as a function of the rotations. Commonly, 10 players would see significant playing time.
That’s not possible anymore. Hart and Ingram are recovering from injuries. Veteran Channing Frye had a surprise appendectomy shortly after being traded to the Lakers, and Luol Deng is not an option due to a mutual decision between Deng and the organization.
For all those reasons, the rotation has been limited mostly to eight or nine players, with the starters and Isaiah Thomas getting the bulk of the minutes. It’s meant much heavier minutes for the rookies. In Indianapolis, for example, rookie Lonzo Ball played 37 minutes and 22 seconds while fellow rookie Kyle Kuzma played 36 minutes and 52 seconds.
It’s also meant increased playing time for players like Tyler Ennis and Ivica Zubac, who saw sparse playing time early in the season and Travis Wear, who is on the second of two 10-day contracts.
Some relief might be coming soon. Ingram has been progressing well, and is close to being cleared for taking contact in practices. The Lakers next practice will be Wednesday in New Orleans.
Until then, they’ll keep learning this part of the game.