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The Triple Team: Joe Ingles, Donovan Mitchell attack Blazers’ defensive weaknesses repeatedly for win

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Joe Ingles (2) and Utah Jazz forward Royce O'Neale (23) embrace after an Ingles three-pointer as the Utah Jazz host the Portland Trail Blazers, NBA basketball in Salt Lake City on Thursday, Dec. 26, 2019.

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 121-115 win over the Portland Trail Blazers from Salt Lake Tribune beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Jazz have their best offensive game of the year against porous Portland defense

Before tonight’s game, a curious quote came out of Portland:

“He should have told his coach to put him in in the end, then,” Rudy Gobert said postgame.

Blazers starting center Hassan Whiteside ended up as a -28 in tonight’s game in just 21 minutes on the floor. He wasn’t alone at fault for this, of course: Whiteside had to defend pick and rolls along side Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, two limited defenders, and Carmelo Anthony, who has struggled mightily defensively in recent years.

How this game unfolded was fascinating: first, the Jazz attacked Whiteside in pick and roll time and time again, taking advantage of the big man’s lack of mobility and the ease in which he is fooled. They did that with Joe Ingles, who scored 14 points in the first six minutes of the game.

That is... an uncontested layup, without much doing.

Tired of getting absolutely roasted, the Blazers changed up what they were doing. They put their only reasonable defender, Kent Bazemore, on Ingles, which left Lillard to guard Bojan Bogdanovic. At first, Bogey just got layups on Lillard, which was problematic, so then they started to double Bogey in the paint. Bogey passed out of those plays, a scramble ensued, and the Jazz got open threes.

So finally the Blazers gave up, and just played switch defense. They found some success for a while with this — see the early 4th quarter, and especially when Skal Labissiere switched onto Mitchell, they were largely fine. But the Jazz took timeout, and once Mitchell came back in, they went to their switch offense: have the worst defender on the court set a screen or fake a screen for Donovan Mitchell. Then, either Mitchell gets to isolate against Carmelo Anthony, or there’s a moment of indecision where Mitchell can attack, or they straight double Mitchell for a second, leaving an open player. That also got buckets.

When you have that many holes defensively, plugging one just creates another. Now, give the Blazers credit for making the adjustments to deal with it — Terry Stotts is a good coach — but give the Jazz even more credit for successfully besting everything Portland threw at them. A 130 offensive rating is going to win you a lot of games, this one included.

2. This one Joe Ingles shot could change everything

I didn’t mean to word that like a click-bait link at the end of an online article. I’m sorry.

But if you’ve been a long-time reader of the Triple Team, you know that usually, the Jazz have the most trouble attacking one style of defense: drop-big defense in pick and roll. With effective big men down low, Mitchell can’t get all the way to the rim, meaning he puts up floaters. Meanwhile, defenders stay home on shooters, so the likes of Bogdanovic, Royce O’Neale, and Ingles can’t get open. Gobert’s roll is stifled, too: he can’t rely on lobs and dunks. Anecdotally, the Jazz seem to have seen that style of defense more this year.

And yet, if Joe Ingles can consistently take and make this one shot, defenses are going to have to get out of that look, at least with pick and rolls involving him. That’s exactly what happened tonight, as you see above.

The shot is this: Ingles dances around a pick and roll, and may or may not see something he likes. If he does: attack. If not, rescreen, and find yourself with an uncontested pull-up three.

This is an impressive amount of dancing by Ingles, and an impressive amount of non-work by Whiteside. In his defense, he’s been told to stay back. And against this sort of look, Ingles should be able to step in, step back, and find himself in acres of space.

Can Ingles consistently make this? The statistical record is mixed. Last year, Ingles made 37.9% of his pull-up threes, and 45.8% of the ones labeled Step Back jumpers by the NBA’s scorers. This year, his pull-up 3-point percentage is down to 29.2%, and he’s only made 27.9% of the stepbacks. But, he’s also taking more of them than last year, and of course, had to spend too much time with the miserable bench unit early in the year, without Gobert as a roll threat.

If — and it’s a big if — he can make 35% of his pull-up threes at a high volume, it’d be huge. The No. 1 halfcourt offense in the league, the Milwaukee Bucks, scores 100 points per 100 possessions in the halfcourt. If Ingles shoots a higher percentage than that on pullups, defense will need to adapt, trap or high hedge Ingles, and that’s going to open up a lot of other stuff. It may not change everything, like I asserted. But it’d be nice.

3. Jordan Clarkson, the good and the bad

New acquisition Jordan Clarkson scored nine points tonight on 4-12 shooting in 20 minutes. All of those points came in the first half, and Clarkson ended up with the lowest +/- on the team with a -14.

That’s not a good line, but it’s not exactly a surprising one: that’s kind of what an inefficient Clarkson night looks like. Obviously, he was still blending in with his teammates, so we shouldn’t judge too quickly.

Because I’m a nerd, here was my favorite moment of Clarkson’s night: Clarkson hits a Spain pick and roll screen to perfection to free up Mitchell for the layup:

And my least favorite moment was this isolation play, where he settled for a bad step-back pull-up mid-ranger:

That first play shows a fit with the offense, and the second play doesn’t. The hope is that as he actually learns the offense, there will be more of the first than the second. Given Clarkson’s history, though, it’s not a sure thing. Still, no matter what, he’s going to average more than 1-6 from 3-point range, and his night will look a lot better.

Here’s one good baseline, though: Clarkson is a good dribbler, which means he rarely loses the ball when he drives. That means, perhaps, turnovers are going to be more rare than, say, possessions dominated by Emmanuel Mudiay or even Mitchell. That means that the Jazz’s defense will be able to set up after misses, giving them a chance.

I don’t mean to sound so pessimistic! But as I look at this deal, in the worst case, Clarkson’s ability to avoid turnovers means that he could make the bench better just by getting shots up, make or miss.

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