Matt Gade, Deseret News
SALT LAKE CITY — The comparisons between the Utah Jazz and Indiana Pacers, and between the two teams' up-and-coming stars, Gordon Hayward and Paul George, are inevitable.
Both teams are so-called "small-market" NBA franchises that, way back in the day, formerly fielded championship teams in the old American Basketball Association.
Now they're both trying to somehow, someday find their way to the top in a league in which championships generally wind up in much bigger markets like Miami, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago, Dallas, Houston or Detroit.
In fact, over the last 30 years, all but four NBA titles have landed in one of those seven cities.
The exception to that unwritten rule? San Antonio, which has taken home the top prize four times since 1999 and gives teams like the Jazz and Pacers hope that, maybe sometime, it can happen for them, too.
This season, that dream could definitely be turned into a reality for Indiana, which brings the NBA's best record (16-2) and one of its best all-around players, George, into town Wednesday night to tangle with the Jazz at EnergySolutions Arena.
Indeed, the Pacers have emerged as the small-market championship threat that the Jazz were back in the Stockton-Malone glory days of the late-1990s. And George has become the difference-making player that the Jazz hope Hayward might be someday.
One thing that makes the Pacers so tough to beat is their defense, which leads the league by allowing opponents an average of just 87.6 points per game — the only team in the league that's giving up less than 91.8 ppg. The Pacers have also limited their opponents to a league-best 39.5 shooting percentage from the field.
Utah coach Tyrone Corbin is certainly impressed with the way the Pacers are playing. And who wouldn't be?
"They're one of the best in the league right now in the way they play," Corbin said. "They play more traditionally and have two big guys on the floor most of the time.
"They control the paint. They're physical on the perimeter. Their guys get up in you and have their hands on you. They do a great job of communicating with each other, and they trust that if they get up in you, they trust that if they make a mistake then the next rotation the guy's gonna continue to come and the big guys, (Roy) Hibbert and the guys in the middle, are gonna control the paint for them.
"So offensively, you have to be really sharp in what you're doing because they try and take you out of what you want to do," he said.
Hayward, too, gives the Pacers plenty of credit for being a fierce defensive force.
"They are good all-around defensively, and that's why they're so good," he said. "If you get past the initial guy, then you've got another guy waiting on you.
"I think it's gonna be key for us to make sure when we get into the paint we're looking to kick out and looking to find other people that maybe might have a better shot, because they're good at contesting shots at the rim obviously with Roy Hibbert and some of the other players they have."
The Pacers suffered just their second loss of the season on Monday night at Portland, but it certainly wasn't George's fault.
After all, he poured in a career-high 43 points, including 15 — on five 3-pointers — in the last three minutes of the game. The 6-foot-9 George is averaging 24.9 points, the fourth-best figure in the league, along with 5.9 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.2 steals per game. He is shooting 47.6 percent from the field, including 41.2 percent from 3-point range, and 83.5 percent from the foul line.
The fourth-year swingman from Fresno State has scored 20 or more points in 15 of his team's 18 games.
"Every year, he seems to add something to his game," Corbin said of George, who was the 10th player picked in the 2009 NBA draft — one spot after the Jazz selected Hayward at No. 9. "He's understanding what's gonna help him be as good as he wants to be and in turn help his team be one of the best teams in the league and have a chance to win it all. So he understands that's a lot on how he continues to grow individually and how he grows with his team.
"Just watching a young guy like that every year make steps forward and how now he's embracing a leadership role and then going from being a good player to a really good player now to being a great player and how he's trying to make that next step (is impressive).
"It takes awhile to grow into it, man," Corbin said, "and he's a great example for Gordon to look at a guy who's kinda taken it step by step by step. And Paul is one of the guys he can look at because when (Danny) Granger went down, his role increased and he did some things where when they started trusting him and he got a bigger role and now he's one of the guys for them — if not the guy. So there are some comparisons there.
"He's always been thought as being a good player, but who knows how great a guy can be until he gets into this league and his talents transfer? And he's grown every year."
That's precisely what the Jazz brain trust has in mind for Hayward, Utah's own versatile 6-8 swingman who has been given a much greater leadership role this season with this young, rebuilding ballclub.
Hayward's hoped-for ascension into becoming one of the league's elite players has not happened nearly as quickly as that of George, who has blossomed into a budding superstar.
But that hope remains, and after struggling through a dreadful three-week shooting slump in which he hit just 29 percent of his shots from the field, Hayward busted out of it in a big way by connecting on 12 of 18 shots on his way to a season-high 29 points in Utah's victory over Houston on Monday night — giving the Jazz (4-15) their first back-to-back wins of the season.
"It's just a good feeling to see the shots going in," Hayward said. "I got it going early with some layups and free throws, and that's a good way to start a game. The basket just seems a little bigger and you get yourself going.
"You just go back in the gym every day and try not to worry about it," he said of breaking out of his slump. "Just try to do other things to get yourself going in the game — not worry about the shots; make sure that you're defending, you're creating for others and doing other things to help the team.
"I think we're building on a lot of things," Hayward said of Utah's mini-winning streak. "We're getting guys back healthier, but we've still obviously got a lot of work to do. We're still last in the West, and we're trying to get better and better. But it's good to see that we're improving, finishing out games and picking up some wins."
And as for his budding, friendly rivalry with George — who plays for the pro team in Hayward's home state of Indiana — the Jazz player smiled as he answered.
"We came out of the same draft class and we've been friends since," Hayward said. "We play in the summer together and initially we had the same agent, so we talk back and forth.
"And he obviously trains in Indy sometimes during the summer and that's where I live during the summer. He's a good guy and a good basketball player."
Jazz fans will get a chance to see just how good George is — and possibly get a good, up-close look at the next NBA championship team — Wednesday night at ESA.
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