Joe Ingles and the Utah Jazz look ready to contend, but can they make their mark this postseason?
Ingles and his Jazz side are well placed for a deep postseason run.
The Utah Jazz —and Joe Ingles— have become a staple of the NBA postseason. The Jazz have made the postseason every year since 2016, finishing either fifth or sixth in the Western conference standings, before catapulting up the standings over the past six months.
With Ingles in tow, Utah has become a reliable presence in the NBA’s middle class. They have won multiple playoff series. They have received acclaim as a plucky overachiever, playing the sport in a manner that caught the attention of fans longing for a small market side to break through. But they’ve never been a serious contender for the crown. Getting to the second round of the postseason has been the glass ceiling for Quin Snyder’s team – Ingles and Snyder have never won more than five games in a single postseason. As a franchise, it has been 13 years since the Jazz accomplished that feat. With that being the context, the next two months offer so much promise for Ingles, Snyder and the Jazz.
Utah has been the best team in basketball over the NBA’s wacky pandemic season. They led the league in wins (52), defensive rating and finishing third in offensive rating, per Cleaning the Glass. That is the profile of a regular season juggernaut. Dig a little deeper and the reality is even more pronounced. The difference between Utah’s league leading net rating (11.2) and the second ranked LA Clippers (6.8), again using Cleaning the Class data that eliminates garbage time, is the same gap between LA and the ninth ranked side. Utah didn’t just sit atop the league for six months; they put together a resume that looks akin to that of a bona fide contender.
Despite gaudy heights reached by Utah over the past six months, they enter the postseason with question marks not usually placed upon number one seeds, especially after a Game 1 loss to the Grizzlies. Memphis is a playoff neophyte. Ja Morant is unquestionably a star of tomorrow and he has the ability to make Utah work over the next week, but the Jazz are major benefactors of the NBA instituting a play-in game. Steph Curry and the Warriors would have been a stiffer challenge. Utah will likely dispatch the Grizzles, and that is when their opposition jumps up a level.
Denver or Portland would await a victorious Jazz outfit, with both teams having greater talent and playoff experience than Memphis. A rematch with Denver would offer Utah the chance to atone for their defeat last season, where they blew a 3-1 lead to the Nuggets. Speaking last week, Ingles acknowledged the opportunity lost in Orlando, while crediting the experience as a wake up call.
“When you lose from 3-1 in a series like we did last year it wakes you up a little bit. We knew we were good but we weren't good enough and that focus is kind of renewed,” Ingles said. His comments have been echoed by his teammates all season. Seeing their season end on a Mike Conley heave in Orlando has been a source of inspiration. A focusing tool, also, with the Jazz being able to tangibility see how close they came to toppling a Nuggets side that fought through to the conference finals. That’s a mindset that helped Utah dominate the regular season, but Ingles believes an even sharper focus will be needed for the team to achieve their goals.
“It’s an exciting time for our team, obviously a special group with what we've done this year,” Ingles told reporters last week. “It's almost time to park it to the side now because it's time for the playoffs. It's a whole new focus and obviously new goals so we'll have fun.”
Ingles just completed the most impactful regular season of his career. There are a slew of advanced numbers that validate his standing as the leading the reserve player in basketball. He is overqualified to be starting games from the bench, although that is a luxury that has allowed Utah to flourish. The Australian is functionally Utah’s sixth starter, being upgraded when injuries strike to Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell, and has earned his way to being a finalist for the 2020-21 NBA Sixth Man of the Year Award, alongside teammate Jordan Clarkson and New York guard, Derrick Rose.
Ingles has long reinforced his happiness in serving any role that is needed for the Jazz to win. He isn’t the biggest or flashiest name in Utah, but his impact has never been stronger. The team is launching into a postseason with legitimate hopes a sustained campaign for the first time in over a decade and they need their Australian swingman more than ever.
The realities of COVID-19 have thrust the Western cConference wide open and Ingles is hoping his team can take advantage of the opportunity they have earned.
“With the year we've had with COVID and the restrictions,” Ingles said, “Different things have gone on and different teams have been affected by it. I think it's opened things up a little bit more because you've seen teams be hit pretty hard by COVID or injuries. Some of the teams you would see at the top are a bit lower down.
“The Lakers in the play-in, nobody would have put money on that heading into the preseason. We've been lucky, knock on wood, that we haven't had any COVID incidents with our group so far this year and I think that's a credit to our players and the group of 50-60 people that we are around every day, how serious we took it and how serious we wanted to keep this season alive and going.”
Utah finished the regular season with a 31-5 record on their home court, Vivint Arena. Crowd capacity is slowing rising across North America just in time for the postseason. It provides the Jazz with a more tangible reward for their fluorescent regular season campaign.
“I have played a lot of playoff series in Utah that shows the crowd can make a difference there,” Ingles said. “They're crazy in general but they're crazier in the playoffs.
“The other thing with the no. 1 seed is that we believe we earned it. We played the right way, we played good basketball, we played with unselfishness for 72 games. We were competing on every level with COVID, with health, with recovery and it's put us in this position so obviously, now it's on us to park the top seed away. We aren't going to be celebrating finishing first, we've got a little bit of a target on our back because teams want to play us and beat us.”