As Jazz struggle, Joe Ingles defends the locker room and tries to keep things together

Typically light-hearted, the Aussie forward has shown a fiery side while trying to help guide Utah from its slump.

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah Jazz forward Joe Ingles (2) pleads his case with referee Violet Palmer (12), in NBA action Utah Jazz vs Cleveland Cavaliers, in Salt Lake City, Saturday, December 30, 2017.

Detroit • It’s a matter of time now. Donovan Mitchell knows it.

Joe Ingles will have his revenge.

After the 30-year-old swingman tied his career high with 21 points on Saturday night against the Clippers, Mitchell — as he’s done to other veterans this season — ambushed Ingles during his postgame interview by squirting him with a water bottle. After the two exchanged a series of Instagram comments, Mitchell now knows on a day not too long from now, he’ll come to the practice facility parking lot to find his car filled with popcorn.

The hazing ritual, of course, is all in good fun. And that’s the case for Ingles, too. In his fourth year with the Jazz (19-28), he’s known as the player who keeps things loose.

“He’s that guy to keep the energy going, to keep up jokes and be funny,” Mitchell said. “He’s always been that guy. We love him. He keeps the same energy whether we’re up or down. He keeps the same energy, and that’s one of his best locker room attributes, to be able to keep everybody up with a positive vibe.”

Utah has needed positive vibes this season. From the departure of Gordon Hayward, one of Ingles’ best friends, to the seemingly endless parade of injuries, Ingles has been counted on as a mainstay in the lineup and the locker room — he’s the only Jazzman to play every game so far this season.

According to teammates, he has been his typical engaging self, but some of the issues surrounding the season have seemed to grate on him, particularly in interactions with the media. After the Jazz’s win over the Clippers on Saturday night, Ingles offered that he’s been frustrated with public assumptions he’s seen or heard about the Jazz; when asked to specify, he said, “We ain’t got enough time.”

While The Tribune has reported that tensions have mounted recently as the Jazz have lost 17 of their past 23 games and trade rumors have swirled, it’s clear that Ingles is one of the players most invested in defending the integrity of the locker room.

“The end of the day it’s really only us and the coaching staff and the guys in the locker room that knows what’s going on,” he said. “Everyone else just assumes and makes assumptions, or does what they have to do. I love how we’ve stuck together.”

Ingles has a lot invested in the Jazz, and vice versa. After signing a four-year, $52 million contract that made him Australia’s most handsomely compensated sportsman, Ingles, his wife, Renee, and their twin children decided to nest in the state where his NBA career blossomed. Even after Hayward left, the Jazz viewed him as a versatile piece who could shoot threes, defend the perimeter and facilitate offense.

The moment the ink dries on an athlete’s new contract is when outsiders start questioning if he’s worth it, but for the most part, Ingles has been what the Jazz expected. He’ll never be transcendent, but he’s upped his scoring, rebounding and assist numbers in fairly close alignment with his increase in minutes, all while shooting nearly 43 percent from 3-point range.

“All the things that connect us offensively are things he’s capable of doing and that he’s looking to do,” coach Quin Snyder said. “More than anything, he’s looking for any way he can to contribute.”

That goes for the atmosphere as well. Ingles isn’t on the trading block, but others are, and it’s clear that has hampered the Jazz as they have looked to break out of their slump.

But players and coaches say Ingles remains committed to interact with teammates and bring them together. Ricky Rubio, who is having a rough season on the court while transitioning to the Jazz, has visited with the Ingles family and considers Joe in his corner.

“He’s great for that: He’s a goofy guy,” Rubio said. “That helps too with the chemistry and in the tough moments you need that chemistry, because you gotta know you got each other’s backs.”

The person Ingles has been toughest on, Snyder said, is himself. He’d like to see Ingles stay more upbeat in games when he doesn’t start well. There have been times when that resilience shines through, as it did against the Clippers when Ingles notched five 3-pointers after a slow first quarter. Then there are games where he is all but invisible, like when he shot only once against the Pacers and notched one assist.

Ingles is unapologetically allergic to what he sees as bad shots, and sometimes he and Snyder have been at odds on the issue. Snyder said the two butted heads in Charlotte, which he called “a sign of a healthy relationship.” That may be true with Ingles, who lets such interactions roll off his back.

“Guys are gonna go at each other — coaches, players, it is what it is,” Ingles said. “The good teams are the ones that can take that on the chest and handle it and move on and use that criticism to better themselves and the team. We’ve had plenty. I screamed at Rudy last night [against the Knicks] to run back one time. He told me where to go. And the next play, we were good. I think the good teams are the teams that can do that.”

The record indicates that the Jazz haven’t been good lately, but Ingles is one of those invested in turning that around. If that means a few jokes here and there, he’ll gladly play the role of class clown.

But there’s also a more fiery side — he’ll stand up for the locker room if he must.

“We have a bunch of guys who want to get better and want to be better, that’s been our biggest thing,” Mitchell said. “When you have guys like Joe who defend our locker room and our team, it’s just leaders like that who keep guys together.”

JAZZ AT PISTONS<br>At Little Caesars Arena, Detroit<br>Tipoff • 5 p.m. MST<br>TV • AT&T Sports Network<br>Radio • 1280 AM, 97.5 FM<br>Records • Jazz 19-28; Pistons 22-23<br>Last meeting • Jazz 97, Pistons 83 (March 15, 2017)<br>About the Pistons • Averaging 15 rebounds per game, center Andre Drummond leads the NBA in boards. … Detroit has lost five straight games, with losses to the Raptors, Wizards, Hornets, Bulls and Nets. … Pistons forward Tobias Harris is enjoying a career-best 18.1 scoring average while shooting 41.4 from behind the 3-point line.<br>About the Jazz • Rookie guard Donovan Mitchell is coming off a game with no assists, but has had zero assists in only two games since Nov. 5. … Since returning from injury, center Rudy Gobert has blocked three shots in each of the three games he’s played. … Guard Rodney Hood has missed consecutive games with a lower leg contusion.

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