SALT LAKE CITY — How long should it take for Gordon Hayward‘s name to come up in conversations about the league’s best small forwards?
That list begins with LeBron James, as it has for more than a decade. The reigning NBA Finals MVP remains the world’s best player. However, it was Hayward who was the most impactful player when their teams met Tuesday night, scoring 28 points on 10-of-12 shooting and grabbing nine rebounds to lead the Jazz to a 100-92 win over the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers.
James (29 points, 6 rebounds, 5 assists, 4 steals) put on a pretty good show during his annual visit to Salt Lake City. He was especially brilliant to start the second half, scoring 13 points and dishing out a couple of dimes while the Cavs turned a 15-point halftime deficit into a one-point lead in a span of just more than five minutes. The game briefly turned into a LeBron highlight reel with him throwing down a tomahawk dunk in transition traffic and swishing a few way-beyond-the-line 3s.
Hayward, however, countered with a few punches after King James’ haymaker flurry. After a Rodney Hood bucket tied the score, Hayward went on a personal 8-0 run to give the Jazz the lead for good, following a fast-break dunk with a pair of 3-pointers.
That’s how an All-Star is supposed to respond.
And this is the kind of performance that certainly bolsters the case that Hayward, a seven-year veteran who seems to get significantly better every summer, should get his first invitation to the NBA’s midseason showcase.
“I feel like we’ve got to move up a little bit higher in the standings,” Hayward said when asked if he should be an All-Star, which no Utah player has been since Deron Williams in 2010-11. “I’m worrying about wins more than anything, and I think that stuff usually comes when you’re winning.”
Well, Hayward sure as hell isn’t going to make it based on soundbites. It’s a good thing he has Hill to volunteer as his campaign chairman.
“It’ll be a disgrace if he’s not an All-Star this year,” Hill said. “I feel like he deserves it with the numbers he’s put up this year and winning a little bit. That should be a no-brainer for him.
“Who knows? Sometimes it’s about stats, sometimes it’s about winning. In his case, he’s got stats and he’s winning.”
Hayward certainly has the stats. He’s averaging a career-high 22.2 points, 5.9 rebounds and 3.5 assists. Golden State’s Kevin Durant and San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard are the only Western Conference wings with better numbers.
“His level being so high consistently is what’s separating him right now,” Utah coach Quin Snyder said, pointing out that Hayward has “found the next level” by learning how to attack as the focal point of opponent’s defensive schemes. “He had big games last year at various times, but I think he’s up at that level more and for longer periods during the game.”
And, for the first time in Hayward’s career, the Jazz are winning enough that the West coaches should feel compelled to give Utah at least one representative. (Center Rudy Gobert, a Defensive Player of the Year front-runner who has made double-doubles routine, also has a strong case.) Utah is tied for fifth in the West with a 24-16 record despite a long list of significant injuries, including a broken left ring finger that caused Hayward to miss seven games and frequently play in pain.
Hill, the veteran point guard the Jazz acquired this summer in a savvy three-team deal, has missed a total of 24 games because of a sprained right thumb, a sprained left toe and a concussion. The Jazz are 12-4 when Hill plays. With Hill and Hayward in the lineup, Utah is 9-1, including home wins over the Houston Rockets and Cavaliers.
That’s a pretty strong sign of the kind of potential the Jazz have. Not that Hill wants to hear too much about it.
“We don’t want no one to talk about us,” Hill said. “We want to sneak up on people.”
When it comes to Hayward, however, Hill can’t help himself. He’ll holler for everyone to hear that Hayward deserves to be an All-Star.