SALT LAKE CITY — For much of this season, Joe Ingles’ role on the Utah Jazz was diminished compared to his rookie campaign of 2014-15.
His minutes were down.
His production was down.
He had one game in which he didn’t get off the bench and a few more that he played three or fewer minutes.
Even his interviews with witty quips were seemingly down.
Yet there Ingles was last Monday against Cleveland, holding his own against LeBron James while starting for an injured Gordon Hayward in a terrific win over the Cavs.
And, yes, that was Ingles totaling a season-high 15 points and a career-high six steals in a blowout win over the Phoenix Suns in a second fill-in game for Hayward.
Like the rest of his team, Ingles struggled in a loss at Chicago, but he was among the many Jazz players who bounced back for a much-needed win at Milwaukee the next night.
At one point against the Bucks, Ingles hit three consecutive 3-pointers and added a fourth a little while later. His timely 12 points helped stave off a comeback bid by the Bucks.
In his postgame interview, Jazz coach Quin Snyder humorously guessed what question the team’s TV voice, Craig Bolerjack, was going to ask.
“You want to talk about Joe next, don’t you?” Snyder quipped. “I will too.”
Snyder had just finished discussing how well rookie Trey Lyles had played in the win over Milwaukee. The power forward had just amassed 14 points, four rebounds and four assists (three of which came on those corner 3s by Ingles).
Like Ingles, Lyles’ minutes have waivered this season.
Lyles played a ton — and really opened eyes with his strong showings — while Derrick Favors was out with a lower back injury.
But the young 6-foot-10 athlete has also dealt with his fair share of nights with limited action. Six minutes here. Four minutes there.
Welcome to the life of a couple of backup players in the NBA.
They’re expected to provide consistent effort and energy off the bench even if their roles are inconsistent for whatever reason. Maybe another reserve is hot. Maybe the matchup is bad. Maybe the coach just opted not to use them the way he did the night before.
They have all the respect in the world from their team captain, Gordon Hayward.
“In my opinion, it’s one of the hardest things to do in the NBA is to kind of sit and not know if you’re going in, if you’re going to play extended minutes or if you’re not going to play,” Hayward said Sunday in the Bradley Center visitors locker room.
By his heartfelt and thoughtful response, it was apparent that Hayward had a flashback to his rookie season when his role wasn’t always clear and consistent. He played 16.9 minutes per game his first year out of Butler and has averaged between 29.2-36.4 minutes in the ensuing five seasons.
“I think everybody’s been through it at some point and time in their career,” Hayward said. “For them to come in and be ready and contribute like that, it’s awesome. You’ve got to respect those guys. It’s just a professional switch that they have, and tonight they (Lyles and Ingles) were really good.”
Interestingly, both Snyder and Ingles had similarly professional responses to a question about how well the 28-year-old Aussie played in Hayward’s absence in the two games in Utah last week.
“It’s my job,” Ingles said.
“It’s his job,” Snyder said.
For the record, they were asked that independent of each other.
Ingles said that whether he plays or sits, his off-the-court habits pretty much remain the same.
“I was obviously still coming to the gym doing my normal routine, even more sometimes,” he said. “With less minutes, (I’m) just trying to stay ready. … You don’t know if it’s going to come or not. You don’t want your team to be injured, but that’s how it’s kind of happened for me over two years. When ever that opportunity comes, just try to stay ready. … It’s fun to be out there.”
That uncertainty can be a challenge, as Hayward admitted.
It can be as much of a mental challenge as a physical one, too.
“It’s not easy. It’s not something that obviously every player wants to play as much as possible,” Ingle said. “So it’s difficult sometimes, but at the end of the day, the bigger picture obviously is to win games and hopefully to push toward the playoffs.”
Ingles pointed out that it’s also important that the bench players remain supportive even if they’re not getting their names called as often as they’d like.
“If that’s someone else playing over me or me playing over someone else, we’re all in the same boat,” he said. “We’re happy for each other and support each other no matter who the five — or eight, that group — who’s playing.”
Almost sounding like a Boy Scout who’s reciting his “Be prepared” slogan over and over for emphasis, Ingles added, “It’s hard, but it’s our job to stay ready.”
Snyder likes what’s he seen lately from Ingles — and Lyles, for that matter — but he is more pleased than impressed. The difference is important. One implies that a coach is happy with a performance he expects; the other infers that he might not have expected it so there was an element of surprise.
“That’s his job. That’s his job,” Snyder said of Ingles filling in nicely for Hayward. “When you come off the bench in the NBA, that’s your job is to stay ready. Your job is to keep your skills current. That’s why he’s here.”
That’s why the Jazz re-signed Ingles to a two-year contract after he played well while stepping in for the injured Alec Burks.
“Whether Joe plays 25 minutes or seven minutes, he’s got play a certain way during this minutes,” Snyder said. “That’s how you get six steals. He’s throwing himself in the defensive end.”
While on this subject, the Jazz coach credited Chris Johnson and Jeff Withey and other reserves for having their moments this season. Trey Burke gave a nice offensive spark off the bench for months. Raul Neto has been steady in his backup role since Shelvin Mack arrived.
With all of the injuries Utah has had, they’ve been forced to go into, as they often say, a "next man up" survival mode.
“I’m unbelievably complimentary of what they’ve done,” Snyder said. “But at the same time, that’s what I expect and that’s what they should expect from themselves. It’s that simple.”
Not surprisingly, Snyder veered the conversation toward defense — like you’d imagine he probably does in every practice and every pregame speech.
“That’s been the story of our season,” he said, referring to injuries and players filling in. “I think the way we play helps these guys stay connected, too, and the emphasis hopefully on the defensive end.”
So Snyder might smile when Ingles hits four fourth-quarter 3-pointers or when Lyles shows off his rapidly improving offensive repertoire.
But his face lights up when talking about defensive plays and stat lines that include six steals.
“We have confidence in those guys shooting the ball. Their identity can’t be tied to their shot. That’s the main thing,” Snyder said. “I thought Joe did a good job of throwing himself into the game. It’s nice when the shots go and I think that’s part of the reason they went because we’re not only obsessing about our shots.”