Joe Ingles leads Jazz over Thunder, faces new challenge in Rockets

Joe Ingles and the Utah Jazz keep surprising the NBA world. Regardless of the challenge and odds, they just keep winning.

In the aftermath of Game 1 against Oklahoma City, I hypothesised that Ingles was facing the toughest challenge of his basketball career. A direct matchup with Paul George presented an obstacle greater than anything he has seen on the NBA level. George, a five-time NBA All-Star, exploded for 36 points in Game 1, while bracketing Ingles on the defensive end. This was a thunderous opening to the playoffs for Oklahoma City. Ingles, along with his Jazz teammates, had plenty of questions to answer.

Their response was emphatic.

The Jazz bounced back to form immediately, winning four of five to eliminate the Thunder in six games. On a personal level, Ingles passed his latest test with flying colours. He was instrumental in Utah winning a playoff series for the second consecutive season.

With Ingles on the court in round 1, the Jazz posted a net rating of plus 19.0. In the 76 minutes when Ingles rested, this submarined to a minus 28.9.

The Australian averaged 14.2 points (43.8% shooting from the field), 3.5 rebounds and 3.2 assists in 35.3 minutes per game against the Thunder. Ingles trailed only Donovan Mitchell in scoring for the Jazz, with his offensive output boosted by an impressive 46.7% shooting display from three point range.

Rookie phenom Mitchell rightfully stole the show – highlighted by his 38 points in the series clinching victory – but it was Ingles’ one-on-one battle with George that drew acclaim. Game 1 withstanding, Ingles irritated George on defence, while his personal attack ramped up as the series progressed.

After a circumspect opening to the series in Oklahoma City – Ingles totalled a meagre 16 points and 3 assists over the first two games – Ingles’ offence came to life once the series shifted to Salt Lake City. In Games 3 and 4, the Australian shot 50% on a stupendous 10.5 attempts per game from three point range.

The lofty conversion rate is nothing new, as Ingles has become one of the deadliest long-range snipers in basketball. The volume, on the other hand, is significant, and was a pivotal force in the Jazz separating from their opponent. George and the Thunder defence were effective at reducing Ingles’ attempts early in the series. They were unable to sustain this.

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Oklahoma City’s on ball defence disintegrated after Game 1 and Ingles was a major benefactor. With Mitchell and Ricky Rubio getting into the paint at will, Ingles was frequently wide open in the corner, as the Thunder's weak side defence scrambled to keep up. Predictably, this didn’t end well for Billy Donovan’s men.

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The Jazz made it their mission to get Carmelo Anthony and Corey Brewer involved in defending the pick-and-roll, correctly identifying that the veteran duo could be targeted mercilessly. Once the initial Jazz ball handler beat his man, Oklahoma City was doomed. Only two of Ingles’ three point field goals in round one were unassisted. The Thunder defence broke down and allowed clean looks for one of the best shooters in global basketball. They were made to pay.

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On the other end, Ingles defended George for 231 possessions during the series, per NBA.com. No other Jazz player recorded half as many possessions against Playoff P, with Royce O’Neale a distant second with 92.

Ingles was George’s primary chaperone, and for good reason. In the 231 possessions in which the pair faced off, George scored a meagre 52 points on 33.3% shooting from the field and 25% from three. He had almost twice as many turnovers (9) as assists (5).

And here is the kicker: the Thunder posted an offensive rating of 94.4 during these possessions. Rudy Gobert is the anchor of Utah’s backline and unquestionably their best defensive player, but Ingles’ impact in limiting the Thunder offence, and George especially cannot be understated.

Like all good defenders, Ingles’ game plan was rooted in a simplistic desire to make George’s life on the basketball court a living hell. He was always within touching distance, constantly reaching out and establishing contact as the impending free agent attempted to free himself. George had no space and it clearly irritated him. Ingles paid homage to his football roots, as he looked like an AFL tagger following around a leading midfielder in pursuit of George.

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There is an old adage, one which applies equally to both football and basketball, that “no one likes to be touched.” As simple as it sounds, this was the foundation of Ingles’ defensive approach. He was, in the most complimentary of terms, a professional irritant throughout the first round.

While an ability to frustrate was one tool used to slow down the Thunder, Ingles’ fundamental talent came in the form of preparation and an ability to manage his direct match-up, in conjunction with the aims of Utah’s team defence.

Here is one such example.

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On the first play of Game 3, Ingles immediately shadowed George, but quickly recognised the offensive set being run by Oklahoma City (for the diehards, the set starts with a faux pin down for George and flows into a Spanish pick-and-roll). He instantly jumps out onto Russell Westbrook, cuts off the driving lanes and forces a contested mid-range jumper. This is just one, in a myriad of examples, of Ingles perfectly balancing his assignment in the context of a larger scheme. Preparation is key.

Ingles and his teammates must maintain their disciplined approach if they dream of advancing to the Western Conference Finals. Utah is facing the Houston Rockets in the second round, and find themselves in the familiar position of playing from behind.

The Rockets overpowered the Jazz 110-96 Monday morning to claim Game 1. The Jazz entered Game 1 wounded and weary, forced to take the floor less than 40 hours removed from eliminating Oklahoma City. This was further complicated by a hamstring injury that sidelined Rubio.

Ingles hit the Jazz's first two baskets and finished with 15 points, six rebounds and five assists in defeat. Fellow Australian Dante Exum finished with nine points in 15 minutes.

Without Rubio, Mitchell’s role as the primary scoring option increases and expands to now needing to balance playmaking duties for others. The same applies for Ingles. Spot up looks were hard to come by in Game 1 – Ingles finished 1 of 3 from three point range – and this is something that has been a trend in Utah’s regular season meetings with Houston. The Rockets swept the season series, winning the four games by an average of 17 points.

Quin Snyder and his Jazz coaching staff must find answers for the best team in basketball, something they have been unable to do all season. Utah has two days off to regroup ahead of Game 2 in Houston on Thursday morning (1000hrs AEST).