Quietly, the Utah Jazz—the nominally starless, “quirky” squad, the basketblogger’s catnip—has birthed a star of its own. Despite a bout of food poisoning, Gordon Hayward led the Jazz past the Clippers in seven games, averaging 23.7 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, including a 40-point torrent in Game 3. And he shot the hell out of the ball the whole way: 48.0 percent from the floor, 44.3 from three, and 95.6 from the line.
In my mind’s eye Hayward is always either 1) curling around a screen, catching it and immediately popping it, or 2) catching the ball, dribbling twice, and popping it from midrange, but he laid out his full offensive arsenal in these playoffs, making his debut into the casual NBA fan’s consciousness a forceful one. While it’s still true that much of Hayward’s magic happens off the ball—be it hustling around a pick, losing his man on sneaky cuts to the hoop, exploiting a lazy close-out—he can put the ball on the floor and finish with a man still glued to him, usually with jumpers fading every which way, sometimes with a righteous dunk. Last night, as the Jazz closed in on the second round, he got particularly creative, nailing three tricky floaters in traffic.
Hayward spent most of the series cooking the likes of Austin Rivers, Raymond Felton, and J.J. Redick. Off a switch, even the Clippers defensive stalwarts struggled; he was a little too speedy for DeAndre Jordan to keep up on the perimeter, and, at 6-foot-8, a little too big for Chris Paul to contain. Somehow I doubt the Warriors will suffer similar matchup headaches; Klay and Draymond and Iggy and whoever else will be just fine. (They’ll probably quash Iso Joe’s little hot streak, too, for that matter.) So this next round will pose a harsher test of Hayward’s abilities. With the Warriors the crushing favorites, can he extend this series to five or six games, and keep things remotely interesting? Let’s hope so—it would be nice to see the Warriors break a sweat this postseason.