The way the Utah Jazz are winning games right now, giving out game balls has become a much tougher job. And not just because of the volume.
Sure, when I promised readers a game ball update every five wins or so, I thought that would mean a post every month or so, but I can deal with that. What’s complicating the job of game ball arbiter in a gloriously complex way is the increasingly collective nature of the Jazz’s wins.
To wit, in the five-wins-in-six-games stretch for which I’ll be doling out leather spheres, the Jazz have been winning with suffocating defense, and that’s not the work of one guy.1 The utter lack of consensus in the game ball discussion on Twitter following Sunday’s win was probably a signal that many of these wins are the product of some of the best TEAM ball we’ve seen from the Jazz in years. Worrying about who gets the most credit at a time when the collective machinery is clicking like this seems borderline sacrilegious. And yet, here I am.
That this collective success also coincides with some remarkable individual stretches both justifies the game ball exercise and adds a degree of difficulty. Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors further establish themselves as cornerstones with seemingly every performance. Rudy Gobert is the centerpiece of the best midseason defensive turnaround anybody can remember. Trey Burke just had the best run of games, probably, in his pro career. Dante Exum has flirted with Exum Game-type portions of play.
The guy who probably gets less credit in this batch of game balls than he deserves is Favors, who you could argue has been the Jazz’s best fourth quarter player of late. He barely played the 4th in the blowout win at Denver, but in the other five games since our last game ball update, he has averaged 8 points & 2.4 rebounds in fourth quarters alone, including a bunch of big-time, go-to buckets.
All told, Favors is hitting another level right now: 18 & 9 since the trade, but also 17 & 8 since the Jazz turned around their fortunes in mid-December. That’s why he’s a finalist in every game below.
Not up to speed on the whole game ball exercise? The quick version is that it’s a somewhat subjective combination of who was most responsible for a win and who we will most closely associate with a particular win. Here’s my introduction that accompanied the first batch clear back in November, and here are waves two, three and four.
For the rest of you, read on…
Jazz 104, Nuggets 82 – Derrick Favors
In just 28 minutes of play during the blowout, Favors had 21 points, 10 boards and three blocks, on 70% shooting (88% from the line). All that time I’ve been wondering who would come in and be the Jazz’s version of David West2… maybe he’s been there all along.
Also considered: Hayward (20-5-5), Burke (19 in just 23 bench minutes), Gobert (6 blocks to go with 10-and-8, perfect shooting).
Jazz 82, Bucks 75 – Trey Burke
Picking between Burke (23 points, 6 assists, 5 threes) and Favors was harder than the box score probably made it look. Ben already went so far as to say Burke was the Jazz’s best player in this one, but I’m mostly handing it to Trey because he led the team in several respects, had multiple “wow” moves, and capped undoubtedly his best stretch of the season3. As for Favors, he did in the last five minutes is: blocked a Khris Middleton drive, dunked out of an elbow P&R, put back a Burke miss, blocked MCW, rebounded a Mayo miss with the shot clock off and played a bunch more solid D. Like I said, tough decision.
Also considered: Favors (16 & 12, 3 blocks, 3 steals).
Jazz 93, Memphis 82 – Rudy Gobert
Games like this kill me because there are probably three different ways I could go without fear of criticism. But this really came down to Favors & Gobert. As @Mac_Jazz pointed out, this is a night when the MVP of the game and the guy we’ll look back and remember the most are different dudes. Usually when I can’t decide, I sit back and let the conversation direct me. The conversation was undoubtedly centered on Rudy4, as evidenced by various prominent tweets and the fact that Grantland commissioned yet another piece on Gobert’s impact. And let’s be honest: in addition to 15 points and just the fifth franchise 24+ rebound game since 1985, won’t we all look back on this game and remember “The Salute” as much as anything?
Also considered: Apologies to Favors, who was probably the MVP of this one, but lost the game ball to a better story. 21-6-3-2-3, but more impressive was the way he took over in the fourth quarter. Memphis cut it to three at 70-67, and then Favors reeled off three straight buckets and assisted on the next one. The Jazz never looked back. Hayward (21-8-6-3), Hood (10p & 4a) and Exum’s game was what @snarktank called “Exum game adjacent.”
Jazz 89, Sixers 83 – Gordon Hayward
There was basically no game ball discussion on Friday night: it was pretty clear who the Jazz’s best player was. Hayward had 25-9-4, including another nice run in a decisive stretch. Philly was just seven back before Hayward reeled off two FTs, a nifty drive, a 20-footer, an assist to Favors and another pair at the line: 79-67, under five minutes to go5. Game over.
Also considered: Favors (15-10-3 despite rough shooting), Gobert (9 & 15).
Jazz 95, Nets 88 – Gordon Hayward
I would’ve loved to give Exum his first Spalding, and it looked for a quarter like I was going to. He started aggressively and played solid throughout, with good decision-making on both sides of the ball. But the reality is, he wasn’t even the Jazz’s best player during that hot start. Gordon made some straight-up silly plays early on, and his close was star stuff. Brooklyn made most of its run while Hayward sat, pulling within one just seconds after he returned. Hayward responded with this stretch: three, steal, two FTs, another steal, set up Elijah Millsap for FTs, drive and drop to send Favors’ to line, later nailed more FTs, and then the cathartic dagger* over Deron Williams. How many guys can take over games like that, basically willing his team out of a tough spot on the road against a veteran6 team? He’s special.
Also considered: Exum (14 points on 6 shots, shut DW down), Favors (22-8-4), Gobert (the 7’2″ guy leading his team in assists).
*- This point deserves its own paragraph and shouldn’t be relegated to a sidenote. How great it is to see Hayward play with ‘tude? I’ve noticed little bits of this in recent games, but it’s hard to really peg on TV. Being there in person, I could see plenty of moments when Hayward hit a big shot and then punctuated it with a subtle stare, or came to the timeout huddle smirking. It reminds me of a 2009 Bill Simmons mailbag including a bit about the progression in celebrations, using MJ as a case study. Celebration styles, he posits, are reflective of the player’s status at that time, from “I can’t believe that went in, I’m going to jump around like a huge dork, and I am definitely getting laid tonight” to Larry Bird stoically draining big threes.
Remember the Hayward whose voice cracked while he grinned sheepishly after vanquishing the Cavs at the buzzer back in November? Well just months later, that same guy just expects his shots to fall, to the point that he’s being a bit salty about it when they do. Exhibit A from what should have been a game-winner last week:
At the very least, that’s what Simmons calls Stage 7: “I am not surprised this happened. I am really, really good and the moment needs to be commemorated in some way.” Dorky, perhaps, but chalk it up as one more way Hayward is busting through levels as a player.