Joe Ingles is the ultimate teammate.
He’ll do all the little things that teams require to thrive in a long and tiring season, and most importantly, he’ll do it without the fuss and headlines that seem to be sacrosanct and commonplace with modern day NBA stars.
For all his outstanding traits as both a human being and basketballer, the 2018/19 season has been one of his tougher years, underscored by a playoff series against the Houston Rockets that saw him average just 6.4 ppg, shooting just 27.6% from beyond the arc.
Through his career, Ingles has built a reputation as an elite three-point shooter, stoic defender and above average passer, all invaluable skills – especially in the postseason. How did it come to a situation where, like in Game 4 of the series against the Houston Rockets, he wasn’t even used by Jazz head coach Quin Snyder in critical situations?
How Houston made life difficult for Ingles
The swingman shared some thoughts on Houston’s defence during the Jazz’s recent end of season interviews, whenever he had the ball.
“These last two, three weeks – end of the regular season, and then this series, was the first time in my playing career I’ve been played that way.
“Heavily forced right, the blowing up of every kind of handoff, or pick and roll blitzing or whatever it was. The first one hits you in the face and you try and work it out pretty quickly, obviously, while the series is going on.
“I wasn’t really able to work it out quick enough, and good enough. It still kind of kills me inside that I wasn’t able to help our team as much as I thought I should have, and could have.”
The way the Rockets defended the lefty Ingles by constantly shading him to his right (making a left-handed shot naturally more difficult) has obviously given him a blueprint on what his offseason training schedule may look like. With that, a clear goal on what needs fixing has been born.
“It’s something that’s going to stick with me for way too many months. But I’ll go back and I’ll watch [film], and I’ll speak with coach [Snyder], and figure out the best way to attack it.
“And I’m going to go right every time next year,” Ingles said with a wry grin, assorted chuckles emanating from the assembled media circus.
Life was tough from beyond the arc
Ingles had a very poor series shooting the basketball against Houston. His 27.6% three-point average in the five-game series is a telling statistic.
For context, Ingles has been an elite 3-point shooter in recent NBA seasons. He finished the 2018/19 regular season hitting 39.1% of his 5.9 attempts per game. That’s good enough for 31st, among 130 players who averaged at least 5 three-pointers in the season. And those numbers were actually a slight regression from the previous season, where he had a similar amount of attempts (5.7) at a league-leading, 44% clip.
ESPN’s Tim MacMahon noted that the Jazz, before Game 5, were shooting 18.8% on open looks – the worst return in the past five years of playoffs basketball.
For Ingles, the slump might have been a little more understandable if the shots were contested, or if the Rockets schemed to make life difficult for the Australian sharpshooter, when it came to shooting from behind the arc.
But this wasn’t the case. This playoffs, Ingles took 5.8 threes a game –similar to his regular season numbers– and had 54% of his three-point attempts classified as “wide open”, with the closest defender more than six feet away. Ingles, who would have feasted on those looks in the regular season (41.9%), only managed to sink 20% of them in the Rockets series.
The blame isn’t squarely placed on Ingles’ shoulders – basketball is a team sport, and not many of the Jazz roster did much to boost their stock through the series. But those numbers expose just what a poor series Ingles and the Jazz had, when shooting the basketball.
How Harden picked the Jazz defence apart
“This is a unique series,” Snyder shared after Game 4. “James Harden is such a unique match up, they’ve basically decided they’re not going to play pick-and-roll. Pick-and-roll usually gets a guy an advantage and they’re going to attack. He doesn’t need that. He’s that good at beating his man. Essentially, by putting [Clint] Capela down on the baseline that makes it hard for Rudy [Gobert] to impact the play without helping up the court.
“Our choice is to play one-on-one and try to guard one-on-one, or try to give him some sort of direction and take something away. We had some success doing that [in Game 3.] The isolation, he’s cutting back the same way he would be doing in pick-and-roll if there was a screen and Capela would be rolling right to that spot. He’s just already there.
“That’s a unique situation for us traditionally being a pretty solid pick-and-roll defence.”
The Jazz decided that the best way to defend Harden’s isolation plays, was to take a leaf from the Milwaukee Bucks’ playbook. Having limited opportunities to utilise their traditional pick and roll defence, the Jazz chose to experiment.
As ESPN’s Zach Lowe outlined, Houston learnt its lesson from Milwaukee, and Harden figured out how he could counter the Bucks-style defence, with painful consequences to the Jazz.
How did the Harden defence affect Ingles?
The new defensive scheme seemed to affect the way Ingles would normally defend on the perimeter. Instead of being locked in his man, it seemed like he found himself flatfooted at times, and caught in two minds about who, and where, to defend – especially when Harden was the ball handler.
Harden was seldom Ingles’ assignment. According to NBA, Harden-Ingles matchups averaged less than 5 possessions across the series, and the Jazz were likely fine with that. Despite his length and experience, like many others in the league, Ingles had difficulty containing the MVP candidate.
It’s not just the scoring either – there were occasions when Ingles failed to rotate and close a Houston shooter out once Harden began his drive, and gave up open shots.
Ingles wasn’t the worst Jazz defender — Mitchell and Gobert held worse Defensive Ratings –but according to ESPN, Ingles’ cumulative +/- of -33 was the worst of the Jazz starters through the five games against the Rockets.
Ingles was certainly not the only player who had problems adapting to the new defence, but his lack of impact seemed to be a catalyst behind his limited minutes. Snyder ended up running with Jae Crowder and Royce O’Neale as the series went on, both of whom provided a tremendous spark on both ends for the Jazz.
Keeping things real
Ingles, like even the most pessimistic of basketball pundits, would agree that this downward trend in his form is a blip on what has otherwise been an extremely positive NBA journey thus far.
For the 31-year-old still in the peak of his career, it sounds as though this poor stretch will do nothing but motivate him to come back bigger in the next season.
“Going into the offseason, I’m very motivated, in a high level way, to come back even better, and to lock in from game one.”
Season after season, Ingles has improved upon almost every facet of his game, from both a qualitative and quantitative standpoint. Despite a poor beginning and end to this year, there were patches that suggest this may be nothing more than a bad run of form – something every elite athlete has had in their lifetime.
“We are really close to being an unbelievable team”
Ever the team player, Ingles was quick to push the focus away from his performances when speaking to Deseret News about his Utah Jazz team, and their prospects for the future.
“It probably sounds a bit silly right now, but I think that we are really close to being an unbelievable team.
“It’s obviously not my decision, but I’ll be going in and fighting for everyone to come back. Every year there’s a couple things here and there (that happen), but if we can keep this group together, adding a few pieces or whatever it is, it’s going to be a special team.”
To an untrained eye, Ingles’ assertions seem to be on the mark. Still a young core, led by Donovan Mitchell, the Jazz have built their reputation as a tough-minded defensive team, survived Gordon Hayward’s departure, and continued to make their way to the playoffs.
“You don’t succeed without failure. You don’t succeed without going through times like this,” Mitchell said after the series. “I can tell you that I’m upset, but I’ll be better. Simply put. I wasn’t tonight, but I’ll be better.”
Things aren’t looking all that bad.
From here on, Ingles has a World Cup to play in, and an off season to refresh, rejuvenate, and recalibrate, before the NBA merry-go-round picks up once more.
Your scribe, for one, has full confidence that Ingles’ upward progression will return when that all begins, and that every NBA fan will see that cheeky smile, defensive swagger, and left-handed dagger return to Salt Lake City when the 2019/20 season tips off – while driving right.