Joe Ingles is the kind of shooter who cannot be left unguarded. His 3-point prowess is such that opponents must continually account for where he is and prevent open looks at all costs. During the regular season, he shot 44 percent from deep, 46 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s and 47.5 percent when given at least six feet of space — classified as “wide-open” by NBA.com.
As defensive focus and intensity ramp up in the playoffs, a shooter of Ingles’ caliber would have fewer opportunities from behind the arc, or at least have to work harder to get them. Yet Ingles has launched nearly 1.5 more 3-pointers per game in the postseason and canning a higher percentage from distance. He’s drained at least four triples in four of Utah’s nine postseason games, and a whopping 62 of his 64 long-range attempts have been either “open” or “wide-open,” per NBA.com. Logic and math suggest that most any other shot would be less profitable. So how are Utah’s opponents are surrendering the most efficient shots in basketball to one of the NBA’s deadliest shooters? The answer lies (largely) in three main points:
The Jazz execute their offense with such precision that any defensive misstep is magnified and punished with resolute action. Misplaced defenders or sloppy rotations become self-inflicted wounds that don’t always heal. The Jazz maximize advantages through positioning and decisiveness; sound offensive principles and floor spacing make virtually any player a threatening one and forces the defense into more difficult choices.
Nearly every action that results in an Ingles triple begins with him spotted up on the weak side of the floor. Ricky Rubio or Donovan Mitchell attacks the strong side or the middle of the court, and as the ball moves away from Ingles, so too does the defensive focus. Mitchell and Rubio initiate most of those sequences, but Utah’s big men play crucial roles in creating space for shooters. Both Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors finisher well around the rim, and command attention when they roll to the basket with purpose. That requires help-side defenders to rotate down, tag the roller and recover to Ingles, all before he has a chance to get a shot off. The more Utah collapses a defense and pulls it toward the ball, the greater the distance Ingles’ man must close out:
At the root of it all, the initial screen must be solid enough to jar a defender off the ball and force a first rotation. Here, Rubio streaks right past that first help defender, completely scrambling Oklahoma City’s defense and leaving Favors with a wide-open lane:
Raymond Felton sinks down to prevent a dunk while Ingles relocates to the wing, creating a better passing angle and giving Felton a longer closeout:
The Thunder were probably overzealous in taking away Utah’s rolls to the rim, particularly Paul George, who consistently lost track of Ingles in Games 3 and 4. On this side pick-and-roll, he and Anthony both completely leave their men to impede Gobert. The natural passing angle on a baseline drive is to the opposite corner, and conventional defensive principles call for the defender on the opposite wing to slide to the corner and shut that pass off. Rubio anticipates it, and instead skips the ball to Ingles on the opposite wing with a canny no-look pass. George bites, and Corey Brewer is late to arrive:
Alec Burks made a similar read against Houston, who nails the rotation and still gets burned:
Utah thrives in those sorts of situations. The roster abounds with sharp decision-making, and when an advantage comes to bear, the Jazz almost always capitalize.
Bigs in the short corner
If Favors or Gobert isn’t setting a screen, he’s camped in the short corner — also called the “dunker” position. Those two feast on easy baskets out of those spots, and have their own sort of gravity around the rim. When Gobert ducks into the paint after his man rotates to cut off Mitchell’s drive, Ingles’ defender must help down to prevent an easy lob to the rim:
Favors put the Thunder in the same bind in the first round:
Houston’s rotations have been timelier and more connected than Oklahoma City’s were, but the Jazz still put them in unwinnable predicaments. Here, Mitchell creates a 4-on-3 advantage by rejecting a screen and attacking the middle of the floor. Chris Paul stays home on Royce O’Neale while P.J. Tucker characteristically makes the correct rotation to stop Mitchell. Houston ignores non-shooters more effectively than nearly every team in the NBA, and James Harden is prepared to stick with Ingles and concede an open 3 to Favors. But when Favors darts into the paint, Harden is damned either way:
Ingles has a great feel for playing off of his teammates’ movement and gravity, and more importantly, his opponents’ missteps. The Thunder undoubtedly exacerbated the challenges of defending Utah with low-percentage risks or ill-advised rotations. For much of the series, they lacked the meticulous attention to detail required to thwart such a finely tuned system. Leaving Ingles to rush out onto Favors, for instance, is not a gamble worth taking:
George’s hubris doomed Oklahoma City several times against the Jazz, as he repeatedly sagged too far off of Ingles, betting that he could recover in time. Time and again, that bet proved unwise:
Ingles takes defensive inattention and exploits it with well-timed movement away from the ball, and the extra second it takes for his man to find him makes recovery even more difficult. Even after the Thunder corral his initial drive, Ingles generates an open look by simply remaining in motion:
Even the Rockets lost track of him in Game 2. On this 5-on-4 fast break, Trevor Ariza follows Jae Crowder as he cuts across the floor. Ingles simply fills the void, and Ariza can’t recover in time:
The Rockets smartly tweaked their defensive gameplan to place more focus on Ingles in Game 3. They picked him up earlier in transition, obscured his teammates’ passing lanes and rarely rotated away from him (though not before he sprung open for the game’s first basket). Quin Snyder will find some strategic counter against that, but Ingles’ ability to find open looks might be the difference between Utah staying alive and having its hopes dashed entirely.