When the Los Angeles Lakers arrived in Dallas on Sunday night, Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram knew they had to talk before the team’s next game against the Mavericks.
The Lakers’ last two second overall picks hadn’t been playing well, and with LeBron James and Rajon Rondo out, they also knew their team needed them to step up. So the two came to an understanding: They had to put the promise that led to their high draft selection on full display while giving the Lakers the leadership they sorely needed.
“We’ve got to step up,” Ball recalled him and Ingram telling each other (via the Spectrum Sportsnet).
“We’ve got to be a lot better if we want to win games, and that the performance we had yesterday is not going to get it done,” Ball continued. “It starts with us, especially while LeBron and Rondo are out. So if we don’t come out ready to play then the whole team is going to feed off of that.”
On Monday, Ball and Ingram came to play, combining for 50 of the Lakers’ 107 points, and just as they predicted, the team fed off of it, coming back from a 13-point halftime deficit for the team’s second win since James went down.
Ball was especially aggressive early, and as a result finished with 21 points, 5 assists and 7 rebounds, backing up his promise to step up as more of a scorer after the loss to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Sunday.
“I don’t like losing, and we were 1-5 (without LeBron) up until this point, so it was kind of like a must-win today. Me and B.I. had a good talk last night, and we were both ready to play today,” Ball said.
Ingram’s readiness to play showed in the way he forced the issue offensively by getting to the basket again and again. After taking criticism for isolating too much since James went down, Ingram used the cutting skills that will make him effective alongside James to be exemplary in his stead, scoring a season-high (and career-high in regulation) 29 points, all of which came in the paint.
Brandon Ingram scored a season-high 29 points in slasher mode.— Joey Ramirez (@JoeyARamirez) January 8, 2019
All of his buckets came in the paint, including this transition behind-the-back dribble into a fadeaway. pic.twitter.com/VfBs8mKO4z
Ingram said that his and Ball’s talk was important because they wanted to “have growth” and “see what we can do to better our team with the guys out.”
For a team missing it’s two biggest leaders in Rondo and James, Ingram and Ball’s conclusion of what the Lakers needed beyond just better play from themselves was simple.
“Try to take over and be the leaders of our team,” Ingram recalled himself and Ball deciding. “Our point guard is our leader. He makes everything happen. Tonight he did a really good job of pushing the pace and he got us in all of our sets. When he did that, I think guys followed.”
The game came on the heels of what was perhaps Lakers head coach Luke Walton’s most pointed criticism of Ingram and Ball, a calmly but firmly delivered postgame rebuke in which Walton publicly implored Ingram and Ball to play with more “passion and fire.”
After the win against the Mavericks, Walton told reporters in Dallas that he only delivered such criticism because he knows what Ball and Ingram are capable of.
“It’s why I put so much responsibility on them, because I believe in what they’re capable of doing,” Walton said. “I thought their competitive spirit, and the way we fought and competed at times is what we need to bring to the table every night. When they do, they’re really, really good at basketball.”
The fact that Ingram and Ball took such responsibility and pushed each other to play better shows their growing chemistry, as well as the competitive character that led the Lakers to value them so highly, both in the draft and while hanging on to them rather than flipping them for more established talent over the summer.
But still, Ball and Ingram are still both 21-year-olds, still prone to miscommunications, which on this night wouldn’t be on display on the floor, but in the postgame locker room. After Ingram had already fielded several questions from an eager media contingent scrounging for more details on his and Ball’s talk, he gave a candid reminder that players aren’t always eager to speak about these behind-closed-doors discussions.
“I really didn’t want him to tell y’all that we talked,” Ingram said, but despite that, he was still happy to talk about the results of his and Ball’s dialogue.
“The way he responded tonight was really, really good. Hopefully we can continue to do that and find something from what we did tonight,” Ingram said.
With how tight the battle for playoff positioning might be, Ingram and Ball’s talk — or at least the stronger play it helped fuel — might have helped the Lakers save a season that was looking less promising with each listless, LeBron-less loss.
If Ingram and Ball can continue to push each other to play at this level while James is out, and in reduced roles when he comes back, they’re going to have to get used to chatting about the exchange, because it just might have altered the course of their entire campaign.
All quotes transcribed via Spectrum Sportsnet. For more Lakers talk, subscribe to the Silver Screen and Roll podcast feed on iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher or Google Podcasts. All stats per NBA.com and Basketball-Reference.com. You can follow Harrison on Twitter at @hmfaigen.