Asked the most basic of basketball questions, and yet, one that mystifies, professor Joe Ingles, the Ph.D of proper ball rotation, lounged back in the chair in front of his locker, stroking his chin, considering the possibilities, hatching a theory, a thesis in his mind.
Why do the Jazz miss shots in bunches in some games and why do they make them at the same rate, in the same way in others?
Everybody with eyes to see has wondered about that this season. And what had transpired over the previous 48 minutes was a perfect example in the same game of both.
In the first half against the Orlando Magic on Monday night, the Jazz went through stretches where they shot the ball as though it were a cache of nitroglycerin, caroming explosions all around. They winged the Spaulding here and there, heaving and hoeing, and the thing simply would not drop. They ran their offense, they found open looks, they had the collective touch of the automated garbage truck that bangs your trash into its bin, except, in this case, the Jazz dumped that garbage all over the curb. They fell behind by three touchdowns, four sneezes, a cough and a belch into the first quarter. That ugly deficit persisted.
And then, through similar stretches in the third and fourth quarters, they could not miss. They launched bombs, they tomahawk-dunked, they fired up spinners, they kissed shots off the glass, they squibbed up soap-on-a-rope numbers that hit the mark. They flipped the business end of defeat to the other guys, ultimately winning by 13 points.
Quin Snyder wanted to talk about defense afterward, and its effect on the outcome. His players joined in the chorus, Donovan Mitchell calling the Jazz’s second-half resistance “spectacular.” They were right to do so, the Jazz having aggressively crowded the Magic as the visitors whiffed on shots they made only a few minutes before.
Still, it was the Jazz’s sudden success on attack, after that dreadful start, a span over which an almost-always supportive home crowd got restless, a portion of that crowd actually booing the guys whose jerseys they had spent a Benjamin or two to buy and wear, that was remarkable.
Enter Prof. Ingles, who scored 16 points, after missing most of his early attempts, with additional instruction from another faculty member, Mitchell, who wound up with 33 points after missing four of his first five shots.
Ingles said it’s weird, but the Jazz’s offense is connected to its defense, and just like against the Magic, when the defense sagged, the attack followed it straight into oblivion.
“We didn’t change anything,” he said. “We shot the same shots within the flow of what we got. We missed some. We made some. … We knew we weren’t playing well. It’s not rocket science.
“It’s hard when you’re taking the ball out of the net every possession and you’re walking up against a set defense. Counter to that, in the second half, we were getting stops, we were running in transition. We were able to get downhill more. It’s easier. … We shot the same shots within the flow of what we were doing. Nobody was forcing it. I like the shots we took all game. It’s just that the difference was, we weren’t taking it out and walking it up every possession.”
The Jazz are fully aware that they can be elite defensively, that they have to be. They do not have the abundance of scorers that some other top teams have, so they must utilize mechanisms to take advantage of the firepower they do have in order to, as Ingles said, make their points come easier.
An apparent trigger for that, with Rudy Gobert doing what he does down low, is disrupting the perimeter, hitting the defensive boards hard, causing mistakes, getting out in a hurry.
“We’ve got bigs who can run, we have guys who can push the ball and are great in transition,” said Ingles. “It’s difficult when you take the ball out every time and you’re looking at five guys who are [set up], coaches calling out the plays, instead of getting up off a rebound or a turnover, getting out and running.”
Even for a shooter like Ingles, and Mitchell said the same of himself, that kind of defense fires in him, in them, movement and urgency and rhythm — and in the opponent, confusion and chaos and sometimes panic, giving the edge to attacking players.
That answer does not, however, explain why, on occasion when the Jazz are playing rocksteady defense, they still cannot find flow and rhythm. They miss shots that they’ve made hundreds of times in other situations.
That’s the mystery in the art of shooting a basketball. For that part of it, Ingles had no real explanation, other than to say the obvious — even when good form is employed, sometimes it goes, sometimes it doesn’t.
When Mitchell was asked about his recent proficiency shooting deep balls, his response was hardly clinical to its core: “It’s about damn time.”
He used the word heard more often than any other when shooters talk about finding their range: “Confidence.”
Ingles said no matter how the shots fall or don’t during individual games, almost completely separate from that, a shooter’s confidence comes from what happens away from the bright lights, under the drip of sweat, in mostly empty gyms.
“It comes from what we do every day,” he said. “We’re in the gym every day. We’re working every day. We’re taking the same shots. That’s why we knew [on Monday night], we were going to have a chance if we played defense. You get in a rhythm. You feel good. It changes the game.”
Conversely, “Every time you take it out of the bucket, it’s draining.”
That’s why offense and defense are connected, beyond just cliches and coachspeak.
It’s not always the case, but often, a failure at one end leads to failure at the other. Success spreads in like manner. That’s certainly true of the Jazz. And that’s why the extremes are as frequent as they are, positive and negative, for and against.
“We’re going to play bad at times,” Ingles said.
And they’re going to play well, at others.
Sometimes both will happen over stretches in single games.
The Jazz know this.
They also know the higher frequency with which the defense rises up will determine how efficient the offense becomes, how strong the Jazz finish the season.
“We’re all feeling pretty good,” Mitchell said.
It’s about damn time for that, too.
GORDON MONSON hosts “The Big Show” with Jake Scott weekdays from 3-7 p.m. on 97.5 FM and 1280 AM The Zone.