Los Angeles • Gordon Hayward found the light. And a Jazz team that has spent the first half of its season constantly overcoming adversity and coming back from near-certain defeat added another dimension to its resilience Wednesday night, pulling off a short-handed 103-95 victory against the Los Angeles Clippers at the Staples Center.
Playing without two key forwards and two of the team's top five scorers an injured Andrei Kirilenko and an ill C.J. Miles the Jazz handed Hayward his fifth career start, and then asked everyone from veteran reserve centers Mehmet Okur and Kyrylo Fesenko to rookie Jeremy Evans to suddenly play much larger roles.
To a man, each player bought in and performed.
"We stepped up in all angles," Utah forward Paul Millsap said. "Rookies stepped up; guys playing out of position. With a big deficit on the road, we came out to win. That showed a lot of toughness, concentration and focus."
He added: "We're learning how to win in different ways. I think that's what is good about our team. The wins we've had, they're different wins."
It was an undeniable team victory for a Utah squad that has climbed back from at least 10 points down to win 11 games this season, as five players hit double figures in scoring.
But it was Hayward who took the largest step forward and completely soaked up the spotlight.
Unleashing easily his finest and most confident outing since being drafted by the Jazz (22-10) out of Butler with the ninth overall selection of the 2010 NBA Draft, the 20-year-old rookie who has been forced to balance heavy expectations with tough adjustments played his smoothest game as a professional.
After starting the game 0 of 4 from the field, Hayward sparked Utah with eight consecutive points during a crucial early third-quarter run. He finished with a season-high 17 points all during the second half on 6-of-12 shooting and sank 3 of his 5 3-point attempts.
Hayward entered the Jazz's locker room after the game to applause and cheers from Raja Bell and Evans. A smiling Bell then shouted, "I'm happy for you, bro. You were stroking it."
He was. Hayward nearly doubled his previous season high in points (nine), which occurred Oct. 27 during Utah's season opener versus Denver.
He had only scored seven points twice this season, while being held to five or less in 29 of the Jazz's previous 31 games.
Then his moment arrived. Filling in for Kirilenko and Miles, he connected on 6 of his final 8 attempts and singlehandedly spurred Utah during a third quarter that saw the team outscore the Clippers 30-13.
After his break out, Hayward acknowledged that the moment was long waited and the feeling felt right. Then he wondered about who he would call first, ultimately deciding that he would text anyone who had sent a message of support.
"I know I can play, and I see it in the work that Jeremy and I do every single day before practice. We both knock down shots," Hayward said. "So it was good to finally be able to see it being applied during a game."
Down by 12 points late in the first quarter, Utah fought back to open up an 11-point advantage against the Clippers heading into the final period. The Jazz's lead then swelled to 93-79 with 6 minutes, 37 seconds to go following a made free throw by Al Jefferson.
Utah has won four of its last five contests and sits in first place in the Northwest Division, a half-game ahead of Oklahoma City.
Jefferson scored a game-high 31 points to lead the Jazz.
Blake Griffin's 30 points and 12 rebounds topped a much-improved Clippers (10-23) team that entered the night having won five of its last six games.
Briefly • Okur left the game due to a lower back strain and underwent an X-ray after the contest. His status for a game tonight against Portland was unknown by deadline. â¦ Kirilenko and Miles are game-time decisions versus the Blazers.
R Gordon Hayward scores eight consecutive Jazz points early in the third quarter.
Jazz at Blazers
P At Rose Garden, Portland, Ore.
Tipoff • Thursday, 8 p.m.
TV • FSN Utah
Radio • 1320 AM, 1600 AM, 98.7 FM
Records • Jazz 22-10, Blazers 16-16
Last meeting • Blazers, 96-91 (Monday)
About the Jazz • Utah has split its season series with Portland, with each team picking up victories on the road. â¦ Paul Millsap entered a game Wednesday against the Clippers ranked seventh in the NBA in field goal percentage (55.5), while Deron Williams is 28th in FT percentage (85.4).
About the Blazers • Portland is 4-2 in its last six games. â¦ All-Star guard Brandon Roy has missed Portland's past six contests due to knee issues. â¦ Center Marcus Camby (sprained right ankle) did not play Tuesday during a loss to Denver.