Houston — Gordon Hayward didn't scream or selfishly indulge, talk trash about the Rockets or pump himself up. He simply sounded confident. Assured. Like his season- and game-high 29 points were exactly what he was supposed to produce during one of the biggest nights of his professional career. As if the Jazz expected all along for their second-year small forward to be the primary force carrying them closer to the playoffs with a 103-91 victory against Houston at Toyota Center.
Hayward was fantastic Wednesday. He expertly played within Utah's offense, scoring 29 points on 14 shots. The No. 9 overall pick of the 2010 NBA Draft drained 4 of 5 3-pointers, shooting without hesitation and producing a smooth, high-arcing shot. And the former Butler standout continued to make Jazz General Manager Kevin O'Connor look prescient.
At 22, Hayward's already closed NBA games and singlehandedly won contests. His defense has improved to the point he's not a liability against superstars such as Oklahoma City's Kevin Durant. His confidence, focus and determination have skyrocketed.
It wasn't until the end of the 2010-11 season Hayward began to understand his place in the league. At the end of 2011-12, G-Man's clearly taking the next step.
Hayward's attacking the rim more often off the dribble and in fast breaks. He's learning to use his body to draw contact — earning respect from referees at the same time — and he's strong enough to finish at the rim.
In turn, his average points have risen each month. In January, he averaged 8.9 on 38.1 percent shooting. Then 10.3 points on 47.9 percent in Febuary; 13.2 points on 46.4 percent in March. April's been the payoff. The rising star's averaging 16.4 points, 3.6 rebounds and 3 assists, while shooting 50.9 percent from the floor and 38.9 behind the 3-point line. Throw in 37.8 average minutes during six games that have seen the Jazz's active roster drop down to 10 players, and Hayward's rivaling Paul Millsap as the team's late-season MVP.
The best part? Hayward's more confident than ever. But he's nowhere near cocky.
Millsap on Hayward: We play so well off each other. He makes great basketball plays. He's a basketball player. I love being out there, especially on the wing with a guy who knows how to play basketball. G knows how to do that. He's a great playmaker. He gets everybody else involved.
Al Jefferson on Hayward: Every time Gordon play the way he play tonight, every time he our leading scorer, we win. I only remember one time he our leading scorer and we lost. I could be wrong on that. But when he play the way he play, with the confidence he has on defense, I hate to say it — I don't want to jinx him, but he the only one that haven't missed a game this season [knocks on wood] — he plays a lot of minutes. When we get on the plane, before we take off, he over there asleep. It just shows the heart he have.
Watching Hayward grow: When I seen him last year, I knew he was going to be a great player. He's got all the tools. He's very smart. But just to watch him happen right in front of my eyes is just amazing to see. It's amazing to see it and amazing to be part of it.
Brian T. Smith
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