The officially unofficial game ball rankings have five more wins to commemorate, a new entrant to coronate, and a familiar name at the top of the leaderboard.
With a maximum of 14 game balls still available, it’s getting increasingly unlikely that anybody will catch Gordon Hayward, who has been — by our loosely defined criteria — the chief protagonist in now 11 Jazz wins. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t suspense where Hayward is concerned. There is no mystery as to who the Jazz’s best player has been in 2014-15, by this silly measuring stick or any other, but I’m still interested to watch his last 131 if only from a pure stat-watching standpoint.
I’m largely just curious to see how close he can finish to the vaunted 20-5-42 terrain. He has averaged over 20 in February and March, but to average a legit 20.0 (without rounding), he’d need 22.3 per game over these final 13, or 290 total points. If he misses any games, his average from here on out will have to be even higher3. On the rebounding front, he needs to average just a sliver over 5.6 over the final 13 to finish above 5.0.
Not that it really matters. Hayward has announced himself as being for real, whether his final scoring average is 20.1 or 19.6. But there’s something psychologically reassuring/impressive about looking down and seeing Utah’s new franchise face in 20-5-4 territory, something only the biggest Jazz stars of all time have done.
Here are some other fun plot lines to watch as the final 13 unfold:
Jazz 87, Knicks 82 – Derrick Favors
You could tell this was Favors’ game long before he took his 20 first-half points into the locker room. The final damage: 29 and 12, 69% true shooting, and a handful of just plain get-out-of-my-way buckets. He shot 8/11 when contested. He came up with several late defensive plays, and had the best D rating of all the starters. Even as he expressed angst about the overall performance, Quin made sure to say: “Derrick Favors was an absolute anchor.”
Also considered: Rodney Hood (career high 17, broke Jazz out of a third-quarter slump) and Joe Ingles (8 straight in the fourth, 12-3-5 overall) both had stretches where they were really, really important.
Jazz 109, Rockets 91 – Rudy Gobert
As is always the case in a big upset win, there are plenty of options here. But Rudy set off another round of national acclaim with his career high 19 points to go with 22 boards and 4 blocks. In a game that was largely about the defense, Rudy was again phenomenal, forcing five Houston misses at the rim (out of 9 shots) and deterring a whole bunch of inside looks. He famously waved Gary Briggs off when the Jazz trainer wanted to take him to the locker room to treat a tweaked ankle, tipping us all off to the fact that he may, in fact, be bionic. The legend grows.
Also considered: Plenty of worthy candidates, but this was really a two-horse race. That Gobert got it on a night when Hayward had 29-4-7 and a game-best net rating of +42.7 just tells you how buzzworthy Gobert’s night was. Hood had 20, a second straight career high game.
Jazz 88, Pistons 85 – Derrick Favors
I wondered out loud in the Twitter back-and-forth if you could give the game ball to a big man who had only one rebound in 35 minutes of play. Several of you told me yes. Fair enough. Favors was a force on offense (26 points on 14 shots) and out-stifled the Stifle Tower with his four blocks and 27% rim protection number5. He was an insane 7/11 on contested shots, and he once again carried the Jazz in a tight fourth quarter, where he had 11 of his points. Case closed.
Also considered: Dante Exum rightly got some nominations for an 8-point, 5-assist night that included some wow moments. Gobert had another staggering double-double (10 & 19).
Jazz 94, Horcats 66 – Rodney Hood
We have a new member of the fraternity! Hood joins the Brotherhood of the Game Ball after setting a new career high in three of four games. Yeah, we set the bar high here at GB Central. Hood was unconscious, and only needed 11 shots to outscore 80% of Charlotte’s starters: Hood had 24, and the non-Al Jefferson starting Bobnets had 21. This game was all about the historic shooting by the Jazz6, and nobody embodied that better than Hood, who drilled all five of his long range attempts. So he gets it both as a living representation of Utah’s historic performance, but also because he earned the crap out of it.
Also considered: Hayward (18-7-3), Exum (11 points, three triples, three assists) and Burke (two bombs) were the other key protagonists in the long distance shootout, but how bout that D?! Sixty-six points, including holding the Whatchamacallits to 10 FG-less minutes. Hood also led with the best DRtg (49.3)7, followed by Exum (69.4), but the bigs get a lot of credit, too.
Jazz 80, Lakers 73 – Gordon Hayward
Trey had a hot streak in the first half, and deserves credit for keeping the Jazz in it when not much was going right. But G took over late. He had 22-5-5-4, got to the line 13 times, had two great defensive plays in the final three minutes, and did all that while surviving a classic downtown LA assault. He had 18 after the half, and here is his fourth quarter alone: 9 points, 1/2 FGs, 7/7 FTs, and two steals. David Locke lived this one up close and in person, and he also threw his support behind Hayward getting his team-leading 11th game ball. Stars win games.
Also considered: Burke (17-2-2 on just 11 shots) is the only other viable candidate tonight. An awesome run before halftime, and then two big buckets late to help seal it.