MEMPHIS – The Utah Jazz arrived in Memphis, seeking a spark to light their season up.
Facing a Grizzlies squad that had already beaten them twice during the season's first month, the Jazz knew more was required. Quin Snyder, Utah's head coach, admitted as much before the game.
“We’ve always had a tough time against them,” Snyder said "We got to play better than we did the first two games.”
While equipped with good intentions, Utah barely improved over the first 24 minutes of basketball. The Jazz trailed 43-40 at intermission and faced a third consecutive defeat at the hands of a Western Conference rival. Fortunately, things changed in the second half, thanks largely to the two Australians on the Jazz roster.
Dante Exum offered the spark, while Joe Ingles provided the jovial moment that will live on in Jazz infamy.
With 3 minutes and 36 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter, an errant MarShon Brooks forearm rapped Ingles across the head. The blow, while accidental, drew blood from above Ingles’ left eye. It also forced Utah to call timeout so that Ingles could receive treatment.
Five minutes after being struck across the forehead, Ingles reemerged from the Jazz bench, sporting a fresh look that quickly went viral on social media.
Ingles returned to the game with a thick bandage wrapped around his head. In the game's waning moments, he looked more like his great mate Jarryd Roughead after a game of AFL football than a basketballer.
This was something Dante Exum was quick to point out. Speaking postgame, Exum battled through a smirk and a laugh when Ingles’ heroics were brought up, before offering the American media a glimpse into Australia’s regional football code.
“In the AFL, it’s a classic thing they do. They wrap the head,” Exum said.
“He looked like an AFL player out there. He loved it. He’s just fighting for the team. Hopefully he doesn’t get hit in the head anymore. He was all in tonight.”
With his new disposition, Ingles proceeded to dominate the game’s final stretch. He ended the competitive portion of the contest with a decisive three-point field goal in the final minute.
“I just wanted to win the game,” Ingles said postgame, when asked about returning to the game.
“I just wanted to go back in. I told Eric [Utah’s sports trainer] to wrap it up as quick as possible.”
Ingles revealed that he received four stitches to seal the wound post game, and that this was the first time he had ever received stitches during his sporting career.
Even before the blow to his head, Ingles endured a rough night at the office. He was sent spiralling to the floor on two separate occasions during the first quarter. The swingman appeared to jar his hand on a drive to the basket midway through the third quarter, and was battered by a predictably gritty opponent.
Despite joking postgame that he would never return to Memphis following this brass-knuckled encounter, Ingles explained that the physicality witnessed on this night is indicative of two teams that play with a common bond.
“They play hard. I think the way we play and the way they play, it’s always going to be gritty and tough. Both teams played like that.”
Donovan Mitchell, who was held to a season-low 12 points by the Grizzlies, was impressed with the resiliency shown by his veteran teammate.
“He’s a trooper. He’s a fighter. That’s what I respect about him. He fights through everything. He’s just a dog. He doesn’t miss a game. It’s very impressive.”
Tonight was no basketball masterpiece. Far from it. Both teams combined to shoot 40% from the field and a meager 23% from behind the three-point line. The physicality extended beyond Ingles, as 53 total fouls were called in a content that saw both teams outwardly complaining about the referring at different stages.
The Jazz needed a victory to kick-start their road trip, and in that sense, it is mission accomplished.
“To get a win here, against a good team, is good for our group,” Ingles said. “It’s good to start our trip like that.”
Ingles will steal headlines with his toughness, but it was Exum who changed the game when Utah needed a lift in the first half.
After playing a season low three minutes against the Boston Celtics on Friday night, Exum told The Pick and Roll that his mindset was all about staying ready and waiting for his opportunity. That came tonight.
“I’ve got to go out there and be physical,” Exum said. “That’s how I am going to get my playing time.”
These comments almost proved prophetic, given what transpired tonight. With Mike Conley controlling things offensively for Memphis, Exum was inserted with the aim of slowing the Grizzles’ leading man down.
Exum responded, as he clamped down Conley with one of his trademark bursts of defensive pressure and intensity.
“Dante was terrific tonight,” an impressed coach Snyder said. “He changed the game in the first half with his ball pressure. Really proud of him.”
Ingles knows that Exum’s ticket to increased playing time, comes with his ability to defend with pressure and intensity.
“I think it’s something he can do really well for us. Just finding his role and niche for what he can do to help our team.
“He’s so young and talented. I think defence for him, is a huge part of his game.”
On a night where the Jazz sought a season-defining victory, their two Australians showed up in the biggest way. With trademark behaviours that have come to define their respective careers, both Ingles and Exum once again proved their worth with the Jazz.
Next up for Utah is a match-up against the Ryan Broekhoff and the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday. The Pick and Roll will be in Dallas as three Australians take the floor so stay tuned for more coverage.