Houston • Who needs a roster filled with 15 healthy players? Who needs a big-name, flashy All-Star to finish off crucial games? Who needs experienced, proven veterans to carry them into the playoffs?
Not the Jazz.
Not when second-year small forward Gordon Hayward is playing out of his mind.
Throwing down his best overall performance as a professional and pouring in the most meaningful statistics of his young career, the 22-year-old rising star was often untouchable Wednesday at Toyota Center.
G-Man finished with a season- and game-high 29 points on 9-of-14 shooting, drilling four of five 3-pointers, hitting all seven of his free throws and adding in six assists and two steals.
Utah (31-28) rode Hayward for 48 uncompromising minutes. The Jazz ripped the Houston Rockets, 103-91. And Utah again thrust itself back into the Western Conference playoff picture.
“The mentality now is we’ve just got to find ways to win,” Hayward said. “This was a huge win for us as a team, and I don’t think you can ever doubt the heart of our team.”
Phoenix’s loss to Memphis was music to the team’s ears. The Jazz walked off the hardwood ninth in the West, 1.5 games behind Denver, Houston and Dallas, who are tied for sixth.
Utah gained a potential playoff tiebreaker against the Rockets by winning the season series, the Jazz started a pivotal three-game road trip the right way and Utah captured back-to-back victories for the first time since March 22-23.
Paul Millsap (21 points) went to war Wednesday. DeMarre Carroll was a bulldog. Derrick Favors continued to be synonymous with double-double, and Jamaal Tinsley ran point while Devin Harris watched the battle. It was team ball at its best, exactly when Utah needed it most.
“This was one of the biggest wins of the year,” Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said.
He added, “I’m so proud of this group, man, because they continue to lay it on the line every night they step out on the floor.”
The resurgent Jazz did it all with just 10 active athletes. Take away Harris, who drew his fifth personal foul nine seconds into the fourth quarter, and Blake Ahearn, a former Development League player who didn’t take the court against Houston, and it was actually eight versus nine.
The player count was the only thing the Rockets (32-26) claimed. Entering the game winners of four consecutive contests and one of the hottest teams in the West, Houston was a dud. Goran Dragic was contained to 3 of 13 from the field and acknowledged he tired out during the fourth quarter. The Rockets shot a season-low 35.6 percent from the floor and hit just four of 20 3-pointers. And with Utah connecting on 51.3 percent of its overall attempts while outscoring Houston 54-36 in the paint, the Jazz dominated the game from jumpball.
“They played desperate [Wednesday] and they out-desperated us. … They played really, really extremely hard and a couple of guys on their team were rolling early,” Rockets guard Kyle Lowry said.
Those guys are otherwise known as Hayward and Millsap.
G-Man took target practice, The Warrior again rose tall on center stage, and the no-quit duo combined to drain 13 of their first 18 shots.
Even when Houston caved and turned to a flimsy zone defense, the Jazz just shot over, around and through the Rockets. Utah hit six of 14 3s, despite long-range bombers Raja Bell and C.J. Miles being inactive.
Meanwhile, Corbin was at his creative best. Going big and small in key moments, the second-year coach never let Utah falter. He smiled wide and stood proud postgame, saying his resilient team had every right to celebrate one of its biggest victories during an up-and-down season.
“This [was] a playoff game for us,” Millsap said. “To us, it’s either win or go home.”
Seven contests remain for the Jazz, and Utah simply refuses to quit. Youth has kept the squad going. Strong chemistry and tight bonds have prevented the club from falling apart. Corbin is at times using glue and string to piece together a playoff contender. But it’s a lockout-shortened season, and the Jazz were built well at the start. Now, a team that lacks so much is in its best position yet to be playing ball in early May.
“There’s seven games left,” Hayward said. “We need seven wins.”
R In short • Gordon Hayward’s season- and game-high 29 points lead the Jazz to a 103-91 road win against Houston.
Key stat • Utah shoots 51.3 percent from the field while the Rockets hit a season-low 35.6 percent of their shots.
Key moment • After a Kyle Lowry 3-pointer pulls Houston within 87-83 midway through the fourth, the Jazz respond with a strong 6-0 run.