Luke Walton wasn’t going to hand over this responsibility without knowing the person to whom he was giving it wanted to take it.
So he asked Brandon Ingram.
“We needed him to tell us he wanted that challenge,” Walton said. “And we needed to know that he’d push the pace for us.”
Ingram said he did. So Walton started him at point guard in place of the injured Lonzo Ball. It was a way for Walton to try something new after the Lakers had struggled for two games, but also a way to force Ingram, who has been inconsistent since returning from an ankle injury, to be more engaged in the offense.
For this game it worked. In the Lakers’ 102-99 win over the Brooklyn Nets on Friday, Ingram nearly had a triple-double: 16 points, 10 assists and eight rebounds. He did push the pace, allowing the Lakers to play closer to the speed at which they like to play.
“The way he explained it, he just wanted me to be aggressive,” Ingram said after the win. “He wanted me to be aggressive and get in the lane and make plays for myself and make plays for my teammates. I just tried to do the best job of pushing the pace tonight and making sure guys were happy with their shots.”
Using Ingram this way could be a solution for the Lakers until Ball returns, provided the groin tightness Ingram felt after Friday’s game doesn’t linger. He is questionable for Sunday’s game in Oklahoma City.
The Lakers had been starting Tyler Ennis at point guard, with Alex Caruso backing him up. Ball has been ruled out for Sunday’s game against the Thunder and it’s possible he misses the Lakers’ first game back at Staples Center, too.
This position isn’t new for the 6-foot-9 Ingram. He’s played it occasionally this season and the Lakers tried him running point some last season. It’s part of his basketball pedigree, too. In high school in Kinston, N.C., Ingram was his team’s excessively tall point guard.
But at the NBA level, Ingram is still learning how to let that position come naturally to him.
“The transition was better tonight,” Ingram said. “I think the way we pushed the pace we caught the defense off guard a little bit. I think before [at] times I was reserved a little bit trying to get my teammates involved.”
Josh Hart didn’t hesitate when asked what was his most important contribution to Friday night’s game in Brooklyn.
“Just toughness and hustle,” Hart said.
Hart started for the Lakers on Friday, when they shook up their lineup once again to try to find the right group without Ball. He had 15 points and 14 rebounds, making him only the third Lakers player this year to grab at least 14 rebounds — Julius Randle has done it several times and Ball had a 16-rebound game this season.
The game came after two games in which Hart didn’t crack 14 minutes of playing time. He struggled in both games, scoring three points in Orlando and none in Toronto. Between the two games, he grabbed only three total rebounds. They were also games in which the Lakers folded defensively.
“It was really cool to see him bounce back like that,” forward Larry Nance Jr. said. “Having a couple of rough games and then being able to dig himself out and have a performance like he did tonight, it was big tonight.”
Said Walton: “His physical presence was great tonight for us. I felt like he had kind of gotten away from that a little bit the last week or so. For whatever reason he really picked it up again tonight.”
That is how Hart, who was the 30th pick in the draft last summer and the Lakers’ third first-round selection, will make his mark for the Lakers. It’s something in which Nance has encouraged him to specialize because Nance knows how big that can be for a player. After all, it’s part of what has kept him on the court.
“We need that,” Nance said. “As somebody that kind of has the same role as a big, I obviously admire what he does as a guard a little bit more than the next person so I’m constantly in his ear about just, hey, as a rookie play defense, defense, defense.”
Ennis did not play Friday after starting in eight consecutive games in place of Ball, who will miss his 10th game in a row because of a sprained medial collateral ligament. … Randle notched his 13th double-double of the season on Friday, with 19 points and 12 rebounds.
AT OKLAHOMA CITY
When: 11 a.m. PST, Sunday.
On Air: TV: ABC; Radio: 710, 1330.
Update: The Thunder are on a three-game losing streak after playing the Denver Nuggets, New Orleans Pelicans and Washington Wizards. This, Walton will undoubtedly tell his players, tends to make a talented team that much more dangerous.
Follow Tania Ganguli on Twitter @taniaganguli