SALT LAKE CITY — Gordon Hayward likened his rookie NBA season to a roller coaster.
On Wednesday night, he finished it off with a performance as thrilling as California Screamin'.
Hayward scored a career-high 34 points to lead the Utah Jazz to a 107-103 win over the Denver Nuggets. It was a performance you could see Hayward building to as he's gotten more comfortable, more aggressive, more confident and more productive in the final weeks of his rookie campaign.
It was the third time in Hayward's last six games that he set a new career scoring high, and with the way the rookie from Butler has worked this season it was just a matter of time before he strung together such quality outings.
"He's learned so much about the NBA game this year, and now he's starting to show it," said Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin. "He's a prime example that if you work relentlessly all year long, stay in shape, do extra running, do extra shooting and once you get time on the floor and you get your confidence going, you see this kind of result."
Hayward made two free throws to tie the game at 103-103 with 1:08 left in the game. Those foul shots gave him the most points by a Jazz rookie since Jerry Eaves had 35 against the Pistons in 1983. Hayward was just the fourth rookie this season to score 30 or more points in a game. The others are the Clippers' Blake Griffin, the Kings' DeMarcus Cousins and the Wizards' John Wall.
That is good company to keep for Hayward, who killed the Nuggets in a variety of ways. He buried five 3-pointers. He knocked down jumpers. He drove to the basket and also sank step-back jumpers. He dunked on Denver's Chris "Birdman" Andersen two times, which greatly delighted the EnergySolutions Arena crowd.
One of Hayward's dunks came after a nice pass from Al Jefferson. Hayward dumped the ball inside to Jefferson and then cut to the basket and finished. His slam and completion of a three-point play put the Jazz ahead 82-71 late in the third quarter.
"He had an unbelievable game, man," Jefferson said. "To see him catch it, dunk it and get an and-one ... I know it's going to be on (SportsCenter's) top 10."
Jefferson and Hayward teamed up again in the fourth quarter. This time, Big Al saw a wide-open Hayward standing in 3-point range, and the rookie made his last 3 of the game to give Utah a 99-97 lead with 3:40 remaining
Hayward shot 12-for-17, and said after the game that it's never easy for him to take that many shots. He's a pass-first player, but knows when he's open he can't pass up good looks.
"For me, it's always been something I've struggled with — having that (shooter's) mindset," Hayward said. "At the same time you need to play and get that confidence and when you're open you got to shoot. The team needs you to shoot it. I've told Jeremy (Evans) that a billion times."
Hayward took his own advice against the Nuggets, and it took a season of ups and downs to realize he needs to leave his comfort zone to produce in the NBA. Increased playing time also helped Hayward gradually improve.
"There's nothing better than game-time experience," Hayward said. "Playing in the game really helps you out. You hit a couple shots, and you get some confidence. Putting a couple of games like that in a row really does a lot of stuff for you. It was good to be out there to have that confidence. I wasn't thinking. I was just playing."
Hayward saved his best game of the season for the Jazz's finale, and he said it will help him improve as a player during the offseason. He hopes the solid finish will also have him ready to compete for a starting position in training camp.
"It's really good going into the offseason to have those games in your back pocket," Hayward said. "You can pull them out when you need that motivation. It's a really good feeling."
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