The Utah Jazz will fly back to the Vivint Smart Home Arena for Games 3 and 4 with a homecourt advantage in their favor, after dismantling the Houston Rockets, 116-108, in the second match of their Western Conference semifinal tilt on Thursday.
Utah was off to a hot start, being up by as much as 19 in the first half, but the Houston Rockets regained the upper hand in the third quarter, led by James Harden (32 pts 11 ast 7 reb) and Chris Paul (23 pts 5 reb 3 stl). In the final canto, however, the Jazz pulled away on the strength of a 16-2 run that ultimately quenched any hope of a victory by the top-seeded Rockets.
While Houston was all about Harden, Paul, and Clint Capela (21 pts 11 reb 2 blk), Utah benefited from a balanced attack, with Joe Ingles at the forefront, scoring a playoff career-high 27 points. Yes, you read that right. Prized rookie Donovan Mitchell had a solid game (17 pts, 11 ast) that was plagued with inefficiency (6-21 fg), and star center Rudy Gobert put up a double-double (15-14) albeit only two points in the second half, so the Jazz needed their role players to pick up some of the offensive slack.
Indeed, the support personnel delivered, which resulted in six Utah players in double figures. Jae Crowder (15 pts 10 reb) and Alec Burks (17 pts 6 ast) may have chipped in with timely buckets, yet it was Ingles who stole the show. Although the Aussie finished with a plus-minus of -2, he still shot 10 out of 13 from the field (76.9%) and 7-9 from three-point territory (77.8%). Those numbers are definitely unsustainable, but Ingles has given his best Splash Brother impersonation since breaking out with the Jazz.
Since his rookie year in 2014-15, Ingles has averaged 41% from beyond the arc—fifth in NBA active three-point field-goal percentage leaders, only behind Stephen Curry, Kyle Korver, Klay Thompson, and Anthony Morrow. Two are among the greatest shooters in league history, one is a former All-Star (2015) and currently the Cleveland Cavaliers' top gunner, and the other was known for his range and nothing else. Face it, Ingles is a legit marksman in the NBA.
He is far from a one-trick pony, though. Ingles routinely acts as second playmaker for Utah, orchestrating pick-and-rolls and making the right decisions. He is also an underrated defender, matching up to wings and even small-ball power forwards with his surprising foot speed and IQ of positioning himself in the right place at the right time in the Jazz defensive scheme.
Watch their first-round series against the Oklahoma City Thunder and see him hold his own against a bona fide star like Paul George, even limiting the latter to multiple games with single-digit fourth quarters. While it does help that Utah has a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Gobert and primary stoppers in Crowder and Ricky Rubio, make no mistake, Ingles is a vital cog in the No. 2 playoff defense (102.1, next to GSW's 99.9).
For a casual fan, Mitchell, Gobert, and Rubio may be the most recognizable names from the criminally underrated Jazz team. However, one could argue that Ingles is Utah's most important player—he's their best shooter, a smart defender, and a great passer. He is the epitome of how the team has been this postseason: deceptively boring due to coach Quin Snyder's system, but cunning enough to exploit the vulnerabilities of heavily favored squads.
If the Jazz are to beat Harden, Paul, and co. and advance to the Western Conference Finals, it will require everything from everyone in the roster. Fortunately, Utah has a Swiss army man like Joe Ingles who also has the ability to shoot the lights out.