The Triple Team: Whiteside’s difference making play, a dubious Joe Ingles ejection define win vs. Kings

Utah Jazz's Hassan Whiteside scores a basket in front of Sacramento Kings' De'Aaron Fox, left, Triston Thompson and Harrison Barnes during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Sacramento, Calif., Friday, Oct. 22, 2021. The Jazz won 110-101. (AP Photo/José Luis Villegas)

Three thoughts on the Utah Jazz’s 110-101 win over the Sacramento Kings from Salt Lake Tribune Jazz beat writer Andy Larsen.

1. Jazz start to figure out a very physical Kings defense

The Kings were the worst defense in the NBA last season. Actually, they had the second to worst defensive rating in NBA history.

So you can see what they were thinking when they drafted Davion Mitchell: forget everything else, we just need a defensive attitude adjustment. And clearly, that’s exactly what happened, as the Kings were insanely physical and tough on the defensive end all night.

The Jazz really struggled with it at first. They almost took it as the wrong sort of challenge — “Oh yeah, you think you can guard me? Well, watch this!”

Frankly, that leads to bad basketball, though. Donovan Mitchell is one of the best scoring guards in the NBA, and yet, if the mantra is the above, he is pretty predictable and defendable. He just drives right into the teeth of the defense here, without a screen allowing Davion to grab the ball (It should have been a jump ball, but tonight’s refs were a bit sleepy.)

Isolation offense can work, but it needs to be better crafted than this. For one: Rudy Gobert at the top of the key is going to make it impossible to space the floor. Mitchell’s unlikely to get to the rim or find an open shooter this way.

So what’s the key? It’s about attacking in a smarter way, in such a way you can get an advantage — and then keeping your eyes open for the open man. This is Trent Forrest, who doesn’t have the athletic gifts of either Mitchell. But he did understand when he could find his moment to attack: Eric Paschall hanging out up top, Gobert down low, forcing the defense to move, and shooters in either corner.

Or this: again, Mitchell is feeling tremendous defensive pressure. So he takes one step to attack, then kicks it to Forrest, who drives and kicks, to Jordan Clarkson who drives and feeds Hassan Whiteside for an easy layup.

That’s what’s great about this Jazz team: they have enough weapons that they don’t have to force it through any one or two of them. If Mitchell’s being bottled, that’s fine, just keep it moving.

The other big weapon the Jazz have against interior physicality is the pull-up three. They have five stellar pull-up three shooters, so if they’re going to be physical inside, it’s no real concern: taking a 38% 3-point shot from above the arc isn’t a bad option. They hit them at 39% tonight, and it kept them afloat for a solid 3 quarters of this game.

2. Gobert/Whiteside role reversal

Rudy Gobert is rightfully known as a plus-minus god, while Whiteside is known as someone who underperforms in plus-minus compared to his box score stats. And yet, tonight, the roles were flipped: Whiteside was a remarkable +18 in just 15 minutes on the floor, while Gobert finished as a -9 in his time.

Gobert was pretty poor for three-and-a-half quarters, though made several huge plays down the stretch, which allowed the Jazz to go on the 12-2 run to win the game. He finished with 17 points and 20 rebounds after a 16 point, 21 rebound performance against OKC on Wednesday. Surely, we’ll see him score 18 points and get 19 rebounds in his next game?

But Whiteside is the story here. When he was on the floor, the Jazz had, get this, just a 63.6 defensive rating. Holding anybody to that number is wildly impressive.

He got his one block the way you’d expect: dropping down in coverage, then taking advantage of a too-eager ballhandler (this time Harrison Barnes). The lumbering and huge Whiteside can do that — so can Udoka Azubuike.

But he also impressed me in how he guarded more perimeter-oriented plays. Here, he gets out on De’Aaron Fox, and doesn’t make any mistakes while Fox tries to draw the foul. Then even gets back in rebounding position. It seems simple, but Whiteside hasn’t always done stuff like this before.

Or this: the Jazz know Buddy Hield is a shooting threat. So Whiteside does actually play higher on the pick and roll, getting out there, slowly but surely, to get a good contest on the shot.

Like Gobert, Whiteside has game-changing length. What he won’t ever have is Gobert’s quickness and ability to move. Think of how many incredible recovery blocks Gobert has had in his career, and Whiteside can’t do that.

But what he can do, if he focuses and works at it, is be in the right place, don’t make mistakes, make life tough on the opponents, and fight for rebounds at the end. He did that tonight, and was a big part of why the Jazz were so effective during his time on the court.

3. On Joe Ingles’ flagrant 2

The NBA’s rules on flagrant fouls are as follows:

  • Flagrant Foul Penalty 1: Unnecessary contact committed by a player against an opponent

  • Flagrant Foul Penalty 2: Unnecessary and excessive contact committed by a player against an opponent

Here’s the play that earned Joe Ingles a Flagrant Foul, Penalty 2. Do you think it was both unnecessary and excessive?

I get unnecessary. I don’t really get excessive: Ingles hardly moves!

Here’s what referee crew chief Kevin Cutler said when asked about the call through the league’s pool reporter process:

“When we looked at it, we had reckless contact to an airborne shooter. The contact was deemed unnecessary and excessive, which is the criteria for a Flagrant Foul Penalty 2.”

My thought: “unnecessary” and “excessive” are both such imprecise words. I mean, if we’re honest, aren’t, say, take fouls in transition unnecessary? Or fouls on the perimeter? Indeed, couldn’t you argue that the most “necessary” fouls are hard fouls designed to stop a basket — the ones most likely to actually be called flagrant? (Okay, maybe that’s a little too lawyerly.)

Excessive is maybe even harder. Whiteside set an illegal screen that leveled Mitchell early in the game — amazingly, these refs missed it. I thought “excessive” might even be a fair word to describe it. Was it a flagrant 2 in spirit? I don’t think there’s really any argument that it was. But by the language alone of the rule... maybe.

I just wish we had a list of things that were flagrant 1 and flagrant 2. Undercut someone while shooting? Flagrant 1. Undercut dangerously while in the air moving towards the basket? Sure, we can say that’s a flagrant 2 if we want. Hit someone in the head? Flagrant 1. Intentional or reckless groin hit? Flagrant 2. Wind up while hitting someone? Flagrant 2.

That’s essentially what we do for the other whistles in the league, so why do we have this hilariously imprecise definition for the league’s officials on this particular rule? I just think we could create something that is easier for fans to understand and easier for refs to officiate.

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