Gordon Hayward made his 2016-17 debut and immediately showed the NBA what it had been missing for the first two weeks of the season, scoring a game-high 28 points, adding five rebounds in a 114-109 victory over the New York Knicks.
The Butler University product went a perfect 14-of-14 from the free throw line just one month after fracturing the ring finger on his left hand, but he left Madison Square Garden a bit disappointed in his performance. After going 6-of-17 from the floor and 2-of-8 from three, G-Time lamented some points left out on the floor.
“First off, it felt great to be out there,” Gordon said. “I worked all summer to be able to play, so to have an injury was unfortunate for me. It was good for me to be out there with the guys. I thought I didn’t shoot the ball that well. Ihonestly 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.”
Gordon’s first points of the season came off a Rodney Hood assist—a pull-up 15-footer in transition that tied the game at eight. He added two free throws down the stretch in the opening period, but the Jazz trailed 30-20 after 12 minutes.
G-Time found his best shooting rhythm of the night late around the 3:00 mark in the second quarter. No. 20 hit his first 3-pointer of the season off a pick-and-roll with fellow Indianapolis native and new Jazzman George Hill.
With time winding down in the first half, Gordon called a pick-and-roll with big man Rudy Gobert. The recently re-signed Jazz center walled off Carmelo Anthony with a screen, and Gordon stepped around it to drain a wide-open trey. That came as part of a 7-2 run to cut the New York lead to five, 54-49, at the half.
While Gordon didn’t quite have his shooting rhythm in his first game back, from a fitness standpoint, he looked to be in midseason form. He played 36 minutes, right on target with his per-game average (36.2) last season.
“I wanted to keep my legs — a lot of it was for my legs, my footwork,” G-Time said of his workout regimen while out. “[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.”
No. 20 put his legs to work in the third quarter, attacking the Knicks defense. He tallied eight points, including five from the free throw line, to help the Jazz fight their way back. Late in the period, he drove right into the teeth of the N.Y. defense and dropped home a layup to start a successful 3-point play to cut the Knicks’ lead to one, 78-77.
The Jazz trailed 80-78 going into the fourth quarter, but they were too much over the final 12 mintues. G-Time checked in with just over seven minutes left in the final period, but the rest of the Jazz came together to fuel the comeback.
Hood drained two big trifectas down the stretch, and G-Time used a crafty pump fake to knock down a 17-footer and push the Jazz lead to seven, 102-95. Not long after, he made it nine. After a Hood steal, Joe Johnson found Gordon in transition with a long pass, and No. 20 drove the baseline for an easy dunk to force a timeout from Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek.
“If he wasn’t in the Western Conference, he’d probably be an All-Star by now,” Hornacek said.
The Knicks chipped it back to a five-point lead with 30 seconds to go, but that’s as close as they came. Gordon added to stretch the gap back to seven with 24 seconds to go, and the Jazz walked away with a big, five-point road victory.
All five Utah starters scored 13 or more points, while Johnson added 10 off the bench. The team shot an incredible 50.7 percent from the floor, leaving Jazz head coach Quin Snyder excited for what’s to come with his team.
“Anytime you add a player of [Hayward’s] caliber, everybody gets to do what they’re good at a little easier,” Snyder said. “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.”
The Jazz were plus-7 with No. 20 on the floor in his first regular-season action in more than 200 days. It was the first true taste of the new-look squad in Salt Lake City, and the group showed potential in its first time out with the centerpiece of its rotation back in place.
“It was huge,” Johnson said of Gordon’s return. “Not only offensively … (but) getting rebounds and playing defense. Obviously, he was making plays.”