Joe Ingles has had a most impressive season, and entered the playoffs with a reputation that extended well beyond his humble beginnings as an NBA journeyman. The basketball world has taken notice, and that was evident during the Utah Jazz’s Game 1 loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Ingles experienced a defensive treatment never before matched at the NBA level. In a somewhat surprising move, Billy Donovan and the Oklahoma City coaching staff deployed Paul George, unquestionably their best defensive player, against Ingles in Game 1.
George sought Ingles from the opening tip and made it his personal mission to strangle the Australian’s offensive game. Per the NBA’s defensive matchup data, George was Ingles’ primary defender on 36 possessions. No other Oklahoma City defender logged more than 10 possessions.
The fact that Oklahoma City utilised their pivotal wing stopper on Ingles, underscores the importance of the Australian swingman's playmaking abilities to the Jazz. Donovan Mitchell is Utah’s most dynamic offensive player. Scheming around the Rookie of the Year contender is a logical starting point in shutting Quin Snyder’s team down. But Oklahoma City flipped the script in Game 1 - they chose to restrict Ingles above all else and it worked to aplomb, especially during the first half.
George guarded Ingles with a dogged intent. The five time All-Star routinely face guarded the Australian, even when away from the basketball, and evidenced a singular desire to disrupt Ingles’ offensive talents.
Ingles attempted just three field goals prior to intermission, en route to one of his worst personal outputs of the season. His first half statistical output was dire: three points, zero rebounds and zero assists in 15 minutes of action. Throw in the fluorescent shooting of George at the other end, and it was obvious Ingles was being thoroughly outplayed.
The Thunder game plan centred on cramping Ingles, and ensuring there was no space for his lethal three-point shot. If the Australian wanted to drive past George's defensive pressure, he had to deal with the other Thunder players lurking in wait.
In the postgame press conference, George offered a glimpse into his mindset. “Just pressure [Ingles], that’s the mindset,” George said. “It's very, very unlikely he'll beat me off the dribble. I'll take my chances with the foot speed."
A further benefit of using George in this manner came when Ingles spaced out as a weak side shooter. George is one of the very few NBA defenders who can balance the conflicting responsibilities of tagging a roll man, whilst also staying within reach of his designated opponent. Utah’s starting unit has two effective big men in Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors, who get a number of their buckets as roll men coming off the pick and roll. George was able to help curtail their impact in Game 1.
George is virtually defending half the court by himself on this play. As Ingles stands idle in the corner, George strikes a perfect balance between deterring any pass into the corner, and hedging as a help defender. Ultimately, George clamps down to box out Favors for an Oklahoma City defensive rebound. Even when Ingles was swung the ball in similar settings, George showed supreme confidence in his recovery capabilities. As George commented postgame, Ingles' dribble drive did not prove to be an insurmountable challenge.
Every now and then, Ingles would beat his opponent off the dribble, but on the main, he did nothing to deter Oklahoma City away from a game plan that underpinned a stout defensive performance. George’s exhibition on Ingles was indicative of an impressive display from the Thunder.
Projecting forward to Game 2
Let’s use a negative play to highlight one specific area of concern heading into Game 2.
Early in the second quarter of Game 1, Ingles shared the court with only one other ball handler. First it was Dante Exum, before Ricky Rubio checked into the game. With George swallowing up Ingles on the perimeter, Utah's shot creation cratered. In a nearly four-minute stretch before Mitchell returned, Utah scored only three points. Yes, the sample is incredibly small and yes, Utah was far from buried in these minutes, but the process of generating offence was disastrous during this stretch.
George was omnipresent, slowing down Ingles and denying Utah any semblance of their usual offence. In the time Ingles was being stonewalled, the shot clock would often approach single digits, with the basketball swung to a Jazz player who was not in a position to create offence. Should this matchup with George continue, Ingles will benefit from greater shot creation being placed around him. At the very least, Utah must think long and hard about how they can create the space needed for Ingles to operate effectively.
Jazz big men coming up and screening George – just as Favors did on the above play - is a nice wrinkle, and something that could help significantly. More Ingles-led pick and rolls, with the pick being set up high, and potentially coming just as Ingles crosses half court, is one adjustment that could help free the Australian as he initiates the offence.
When off the ball, Ingles would be well served doing his best Ray Allen imitation and running George through as much traffic as possible, especially by misdirection. This is something Ingles has done excellently in the regular season, he took 50.5% of his threes on catch-and-shoot attempts.
Watch how Ingles swerved one way, then the other, and scrambled off, using Gobert as a screen to get free. Rubio's pass was right on point for the three-point shot.
Constant movement isn’t necessarily Ingles' game, but forcing George to consume greater energy could help immensely. As Game 1 advanced, there were signs of fatigue from George – which, given his incandescent shooting performance, were to be expected. These were accentuated when the Jazz offence chipped in, and helped create advantageous situations for Ingles.
Here's one possession, where the Jazz ran the same action referenced earlier, and Ingles broke free on a simple out of bounds play that intertwined George and Carmelo Anthony.
The Australian simply outmanoeuvred George and created a rare clean look from three. This is just one play, and no one, not even George, will ever pitch a perfect game defensively, but good things happened when Ingles made his opponent make extra decisions. These can add up over the course of a long series, and Utah will hope they can accelerate the exhaustion process.
Ingles can also help himself by looking for mismatches. When they arise, he must take advantage, just as he did here against Corey Brewer, and a floundering Anthony, when given the chance in transition.
The big picture takeaway from Game 1, is that Ingles’ career ascension is complete. Receiving this treatment on the NBA’s most important stage, reinforces his newfound standing in the Association. Ingles went from being a casualty on Los Angeles Clippers' waiver wire, to a vital threat on a playoff roster - that's one mighty promotion.
In saying that, there is no room for sentiment in this moment. There is zero margin for error in playoff basketball, and Ingles is facing the toughest matchup of his professional career.
As we saw with Ben Simmons and the Philadelphia 76ers yesterday, much can change game-to-game in the playoffs. Overreactions are natural, and Ingles being outplayed by a more talented opponent is, if we are being honest, expected and nothing to be deterred by. But there is no understating the challenge facing Ingles. Deploying George as his primary defender was the first chess move of this series. Seeing how Utah responds in Game 2 will be fascinating.
Joe Ingles, Danté Exum and the Utah Jazz play the Oklahoma City Thunder in Game 2 on Thursday 1000hrs AEST, 19 April 2018.