Every year, thinkers around the NBA world assume that they’ve seen the best possible version of Gordon Hayward. This has to be it, they think, his ceiling can’t be much higher than this. And every year, he comes back and finds a way to be better.
It’s not just about his scoring average — which he has raised each year, including by bumping it to 22.8 this season. He came back as a 23-year-old in ’13-14 ready to be a struggling team’s leading scorer. As a 24-year-old, he improved his night-to-night consistency, and at 25, he returned ready to add solid perimeter defense to his list of underrated tools.
He’s 26 now, and he’s never been a more complete player. He controls games in a number of ways, and can take over for stretches when the situation is ripe. It was ripe on Saturday, and Hayward had his best quarter ever. He scored 21 points (8/11 with two threes and three free-throws) and grabbed three boards and a steal while playing all 12 minutes of what proved the decisive quarter. Hayward’s Utah Jazz used the 33-16 frame to bust open a game that had been close through the intermission, and then weathered a late Denver run to beat the Nuggets, 105-98.
“I found some energy after halftime,” Hayward said humbly after the game, which he finished with 32 points. “The basket gets a little wider when you knock a couple down in a row. But really just, we guarded and I got some good looks.”
Hayward mentioned a level of activity — a “bounce” — that the Jazz perhaps lacked when dropping a home game to Miami on Thursday, Utah’s only loss in their last six outings. It started with stops, the Jazz star kept insisting, and the blow-by-blow of that third quarter agrees with him.
Hayward got things started with five quick ones, but for the next several minutes, the Jazz defense fueled the other end. They forced back-to-back tough jumpers by Denver’s Danilo Gallinari, which led to scoring possessions for Boris Diaw and Rudy Gobert. Gallinari blew a layup and Hayward took the rebound coast-to-coast where he double-faked his way into another score. The Jazz switched length onto Wilson Chandler to force a miss, and Rodney Hood scored from close 10 seconds later.
In all, the Jazz’s best run climbed to 31-8 after Denver had pulled even at 49-49.
That the Nuggets made things a bit uncomfortable in the final frame didn’t seem to faze Hayward too much, who mentioned that the visitors brought a number of good shooters who were getting open as the result of help on drives. Denver pulled to within five points at three separate times, but each time, the Jazz knocked down a pair of free throws — first by Hayward, then Shelvin Mack, then Hood — to restore the breathing room and make it a three-possession game.
Utah hung on, getting themselves back in the win column just in time. With Thursday’s loss, it was starting to feel as though the Jazz just couldn’t pull off a win without injured point guard George Hill, whose status is uncertain. This one brought faith back to a team that, once again, is dealing with myriad injuries to key players. Hood’s return was good medicine for the Jazz — as were his 15 points and six boards — but the Jazz still don’t know when they’ll have Hill, Derrick Favors or Alec Burks back.
In the meantime, what they do have is a growing star in Hayward, who has now tallied 95 points over three outings, far and away his best trio of games yet.
It’s the first time a Jazz player has gone for 30+ in three straight games in almost exactly six years: Deron Williams did it from December 10 to 13, 2010. Hayward was Williams’ teammate at that point, and in the same three games, he had one total point across 40 minutes of play. My, how things change.
As my SCH colleague Thatcher Olson pointed out, Hayward’s impressive stint isn’t just about the last three games. Since Thanksgiving, Hayward is averaging 28.6 points, 4.8 rebounds, 3.2 assists, 51.2% from the field, 47.6% from three, 90.4% from the line and just 1.2 turnovers — and the Jazz are 4-1.
The Exum Factor
Until Hayward went nuts in the third, the game was probably most memorable for being a bit of a coming out party for Dante Exum.
The Australian point guard has found himself on the outside of the rotation last week after a bad showing against these same Nuggets. For the first time in his career, he missed a game due to coach’s decision, and since then he has been gradually earning his minutes back.
Hill’s injury has opened the door for Exum to regain the trust of head coach Quin Snyder, and he did so with a pretty meaningful 22 minutes on Saturday.
Right off the bat, it was Exum’s defense that made it clear he had shown up with a different mentality than the previous few. He was fighting over screens, squeezing through tight places, digging down in help situations and still (mostly) getting back to his guy. He did get blasted on a couple of rescreens, but by and large, he was making himself felt on that end.
And on the other end, he was back to being aggressive.
He first scored on a pull-up when Kenneth Faried understandably backed off of a dribble hand-off play1. But the rest of his points — 10 total, all in the first half — came attacking the basket. He scored twice on drives and drew two shooting fouls on separate forays into the paint. This one might have been the best of the night, and the most aggressive layup in traffic we’ve seen from him this season.
One of his most impressive drives of the night actually finished with a miss, and it was a play that illustrated vividly the best case and worst case of every Exum attack.
In the mid third quarter, he just blew by Mudiay. No pick. No fake. He just went. It was just a simple change of pace play where he went from near stationary to fourth gear. It was the type of play that reminds just how singular some of his tools are. But then, for some reason, he kind of slowed a bit to gather for the dunk. Had he kept that speed, Mudiay would have never caught him and might have been the biggest wow moment of Exum’s season so far. Instead, Mudiay was able to get to the shot, and there was enough body contact2 that Exum got turned in the air and landed awkwardly on his knee. He limped back before exiting the game, but returned later after stretching out what the Jazz termed as tendonitis in the same knee he had surgically repaired 15 months ago.
In a matter of seconds, Jazz fans nearly got the tantalizing outcome of an eat-my-dust dunk, then sweat out the disheartening possibility of another injury. In the end, neither extreme played out, but that’s where the range of emotions is for Exum fans these days.
Small is the New Big
The Nuggets played roughly half of this game with small lineups that featured only one traditional big man, depending on what you consider Gallinari. Gallo is 6’10” and strong, but plays like a pure three. This gives Denver the ability to play a lot of groups that feel like smallball lineups, even though they have multiple guys with legit PF/C size on the court.
But on Saturday, they didn’t get much from Jusuf Nurkic, who only played 13 minutes, and Nikola Jokic didn’t play. That left Denver with a lot of big-man minutes to fill with only power forward or combo forward types available. The most common configuration was to put Gallo alongside Kenneth Faried, Will Barton, Wilson Chandler and a point guard3.
On the one hand, that’s a tough cover for Utah. It especially requires Rudy Gobert to show his defensive versatility, as chasing the hyper Faried around isn’t really what the paint-prowling Frenchman is known for. The Jazz staff has sometimes let other teams dictate when Gobert stays on the floor, but in this one they stuck with Gobert and got mostly good returns despite an awkward matchup. Rudy grabbed 11 boards and blocked Faried twice.
At the same time, Denver’s decision to play small might have played into Utah’s hands to some degree. Diaw hasn’t played great and Trey Lyles is an inefficient possession user at this stage, so the Jazz were happy to oblige to Denver’s terms. Utah was able to deploy their triple wing look and create more minutes for Ingles and Johnson, who were both playing better than the power forwards they displaced. It did get a little ugly in the fourth quarter when a lineup of Mack, Ingles, Hood, Hayward and Gobert wound up on the wrong end of a run, but that had more to do with defensive breakdowns at the point of attack that resulted in open jumpers for other Nuggets.
Odds and Ends
Denver plays at the fifth fastest pace in the league, while Utah is the slowest. So who got their way on Saturday? Mostly Utah. Saturday’s 94.2 possessions would rank about 24th in the league, which means Utah largely dictated the tempo…
Despite having pledged its commitment to the three-point shot, Utah continues to have nights where the club forgets about that weapon. They were just 2-for-8 in the first half on Saturday before hitting seven of 17 attempts after the break…
As Ben Dowsett points out, Saturday’s game moved Utah into 8th place for points per 100 possessions and 3rd place for points allowed per 100 possessions. Those are the markers of an elite team, and so far they have played just one game with their preferred starting lineup and no games with a completely healthy roster…
Utah and Denver have played three times in the past two weeks, with the home team taking each contest. They’ll finish the season series on January 24 in Denver.