Jazz's Gordon Hayward makes season debut with 28 points

New York City — On the Utah Jazz’s third possession of the game against the New York Knicks, forward Gordon Hayward cut backdoor and received a pass, dribbled underneath the rim and back out to the free-throw line, then turned and fired a 15-footer that clanked off the rim. The rebound went to Jazz center Rudy Gobert, who spotted Hayward flashing to the basket and hit him with a pass. With Knicks big man Kristaps Porzingis jumping at him, Hayward had to improvise a reverse layup that also missed.

This was Hayward’s first game of the season following a fractured finger in training camp, and as far as debuts on Broadway go, it was an inauspicious start. But while it wasn’t the best of starts, for Hayward and Utah Jazz it was the finish that counted. After being down 14 points in the first half, the Utah Jazz beat the Knicks, 114-109, behind 28 points from Hayward.

“I thought I didn’t shoot the ball very well,” Hayward said after the game. “I honestly didn’t think I played very well. But at the end of the game we got stops when we needed to. We made plays at the beginning of the fourth. We made the plays that we needed to to win tonight.”

After a four-point first quarter, Hayward went for 18 points in the second and third quarter. While Hayward works on shaking the cobwebs from his jump shot — he finished 6-for-17 from the field — he was able to get to the free throw line again and again, where he converted all 14 of his attempts.

Perhaps Hayward’s shot struggles weren’t that surprising: While he’s been working out diligently during his time off, he wasn’t able to actually shoot a basketball until about ten days ago.

“I wanted to keep my legs — a lot of it was for my legs, my footwork,” said Hayward, who logged 35 minutes against the Knicks. “[I wanted] to not be winded and not be on a minutes restriction when I came back. And my legs and my wind were great tonight. So for me I think there’s going to be a little timing issues, and a little rhythm thing, but I’ll get that back in the next couple of games.”

After a 40-42 finish last year, the Jazz entered this season tabbed by many as one of the NBA’s hottest up-and-coming teams. With the addition of veterans like George Hill at point guard and Joe Johnson off the bench, as well as the continued maturation of young players such as Rudy Gobert, Rodney Hood and Derrick Favors, the Hayward injury placed an unwanted speed bump into the process. As the Jazz began 3-3 without him, Hayward said he tried to stay engaged by cheering from the sideline and “telling them what you see out there.”

Hayward’s return to the rotation gives coach Quin Snyder several interesting options. Snyder closed out the Knicks game using a “small” lineup that had Johnson and Hayward, both 6-8, at the forward positions. “I think that’s something Quin has kinda been wanting to try pretty much since we’ve gotten together,” Johnson said.

“If [Hayward] wasn’t in the West, he’d probably be an All-Star by now,” said Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek, who was formerly a Jazz assistant. Over the last three seasons, Hayward has averaged 18.4 ppg, and played at least 76 games each of the last three seasons. For Utah, Hayward’s impact can’t be understated.

“Anytime you add a player of [Hayward’s] caliber, everybody gets to do what they’re good at a little easier,” says Snyder. “So there’s a trickle-down effect. I think he gives guys on our team confidence. It allows us to play ‘small’ with more size and more force. When you play Joe Johnson and Rodney with him, that’s a 2/3/4 with decent size for a small team. More than anything, guys look to him, He wants that right now and you can see he’s comfortable doing that.”

It may not have been the start they wanted, but the finale drew rave reviews. And with Hayward now healthy and back in the cast, opening night proved that the Jazz finally might be ready to start making sweet music.

Lang Whitaker has covered the NBA since 1998. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here or follow him on Twitter.

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