It has been a long time since Gordon Hayward was playing postseason basketball, and the former Butler star who almost killed the hopes and dreams of Duke fans everywhere is trying to once again create some postseason magic.
Gordon is in his sixth season, but the young star has made only one NBA playoff appearance.
It’s just been that type of year for Gordon, making his first NBA All-Star team and setting new career bests in points per game, rebounds per game and free throw percentage. It has also been a terrific year for the Utah Jazz as a whole, finishing the season with a record of 51-31 and the fifth seed in the Western Conference. But now none of that matters, the current challenge in front of Gordon and the Jazz is the first round matchup with the Los Angeles Clippers.
A team that many consider to have underachieved in the playoffs for the last several seasons, the Clippers still possess a daunting lineup with Chris Paul, DeAndre Jordan, Blake Griffin and J.J. Reddick just to name a few.
“Obviously they’re a tough matchup because of how good they are as a team,” Hayward said. “I think any matchup we would have had would have been tough because the West is so loaded and so competitive. That being said, I’m looking forward to the challenge and excited to be back in the playoffs. It’s been a while.”
When the Jazz last made the playoffs, it was during the 2011-12 season and it was a series G-Time would almost rather forget. The second-year player averaged just 7.3 points per game, shot under 20 percent from the field and just eight percent from beyond the arc. As you can probably imagine, that series didn’t turn out so well for the Jazz, who got swept by the San Antonio Spurs.
But again, that doesn’t matter, this is a different Gordon Hayward, one with a chip on his shoulder, and a bigger load to carry.
“It’s been so long and I was in a completely different role, so it’s almost like it’s new to me, too,” Gordon said. “This time last year we all would have been booking our flights to wherever we were going on vacation. Shipping cars. People would be out of here. There’s definitely a different vibe around the locker room. A different feel.”
TIME TO STEP UP
If the Jazz are going to beat the Clippers and make a championship run, they are going to need G-Time to be the catalyst. The Clippers have played Gordon very well this season, limiting him to just under 16 points per game, the third best of any Western Conference team he played at least twice.
By no coincidence, the Jazz managed to win just one of four games against the Clippers this season.
However, throughout his career, Gordon has very good numbers against the LA. In fact, there are only a handful of teams that Hayward averages more points against than the Clippers.
And the Jazz will always have a chance to beat anyone in the league because they have the best defense in the league, allowing opponents just 96.8 points per game. As the old saying goes, “Defense wins championships.”
The Jazz have a couple of things going in their favor at the moment. For starters, they are playing good basketball. Utah has won seven of their last nine games, including back-to-back wins against the Warriors and Spurs to end the season.
“I think we’re really confident right now, especially after the last couple of games we’ve played,” said Hayward, who had 14 points Wednesday. “We know it’s going to be a fight. It’s going to be a challenge. It’s good to go into it on a positive note.”
Jazz head coach Quin Snyder also has a healthy team, something that he has not had since the middle of March. Only 14 times this season has Snyder been able to play his traditional starting five, but it appears they all should be good to go against the Clippers starting Saturday night.
Lastly, the Jazz are playing great basketball at home. While Utah has always been considered a tough place for opponents to play, the Jazz have won nine-straight home games, including one over LA.
Utah will need to steal a game on the road, but if they do that early, the series could swing in their favor.
DOES EXPERIENCE MATTER?
One interesting factor to keep an eye on is Utah’s youth and playoff inexperience.
The players on Utah’s roster have combined for 317 playoff games. Most of those were played by veterans Boris Diaw, Joe Johnson and George Hill, all of whom were brought in this offseason to help bring some veteran leadership.
Meanwhile, the entire Clippers roster, except for LA’s two rookies, have all played in the playoffs before and have combined for 673 postseason appearances. That obviously does not mean that the Clippers are the automatic choice to win this series, but only time will tell if the Jazz’s playoff inexperience will show.
It has been a remarkable season for Gordon Hayward. A lot of question marks lie ahead as it relates to his future, but for now the only thing on his mind is the Clippers. If the Jazz are going to make a run, they’ll need Gordon at his absolute best. After his best season in the NBA, he’s ready to deliver just that.
Here is the first round schedule:
Game 1 – Sat. 8:30 p.m. @ L.A., ROOT Sports, ESPN
Game 2 – Tues. 8:30 p.m. @ L.A., ROOT Sports, TNT
Game 3 – Fri. 8 p.m. vs. L.A., ROOT Sports, ESPN2
Game 4 – Sun. 7 p.m. vs. L.A., ROOT Sports, TNT
Game 5 (if necessary) – Tues. @ L.A.
Game 6 (if necessary) – Fri. vs L.A.
Game 7 (if necessary) – Sun. @ L.A.