INDIANAPOLIS — For Indiana basketball fans, Sunday’s game was a perfect combo.
Kind of was for Utah, too.
Gordon Hayward, a local hoops legend who won the 2008 4A state finals with a buzzer-beater on this same Bankers Life Fieldhouse court, played his best game in the Hoosier State as a pro.
The Jazz shooting guard even had a chance to win with a near Reggie Miller-like flurry at the finish.
Despite that, the Pacers won for the second night in a row, escaping with a 94-91 victory over a feisty Utah team, to improve to an NBA-best 46-13 and maintain their Eastern Conference lead over the Miami Heat.
“This was a mental-toughness win,” Indiana coach Frank Vogel said, mentioning how his team arrived in town from Boston at 4 a.m. and played without starting point guard George Hill. “I thought we played with extraordinary effort for four quarters.”
It took that extraordinary effort, as he called it, to beat a fired-up Jazz squad that played much better than its lowly 21-38 record would indicate.
“I thought the focus, especially on the defensive end tonight, was really, really good,” Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said. “It gave us a chance to win the ballgame.”
Though it wasn’t perfect, that’s why this game was also a positive combo for the Jazz.
Not only did they play well enough to win — while losing to keep up in the Great Lottery Race of 2014 — but they had strong performances from their Foundation Five.
Hayward continued his shooting resurgence by hitting 8 of 15 shots for 21 points, including 16 in the second half. Center Derrick Favors all but manhandled All-Star Roy Hibbert with 17 points, 10 rebounds and three blocks. Rookie point guard Trey Burke contributed 16 points and five assists.
Throw in a well-rounded 11 points, nine rebounds and seven assists from Alec Burks and Jeremy Evans’s 12-point, seven-board night off the bench, and that’s about as much as you could hope for from the young guns against the league’s toughest defense.
Save for a few quick rotations where Marvin Williams subbed in for Kanter, that unit was on the floor together in crunch time when Utah just about eradicated the Pacers’ late seven-point lead.
On a night Utah led by as many as 12 points and never let Indiana get too far ahead, the Jr. Jazz crew sparkled on both ends.
“That lineup was the lineup that got us back in the game and kept us in the game,” Williams said. “They have a bright future and all Utah Jazz fans should be excited about them. They are talented guys and they had a huge game, and it’s exciting to see those guys get huge minutes against a team like Indiana.”
The Pacers held a seemingly comfortable 85-78 lead with less than four minutes to go when the Jazz made one final surge.
Favors hit free throws and a dunk, Kanter had a couple of strong inside buckets, and Burke and Hayward sank jumpers, including a 3-pointer by the 2010 NCAA poster boy that brought Utah within one at 92-91 with 4.6 seconds remaining.
Following a pair of foul shots by Indiana’s Lance Stephenson, the Jazz had 3.2 seconds remaining and no timeouts to go the length of the court for a game-tying try.
Favors had his first inbounds pass tipped into the crowd, but he fed Hayward in rhythm on the second toss with 2.8 seconds remaining.
In a moment of good theater, with some fans even wearing No. 20 Jazz jerseys and blue-and-gold Pacers fans screaming, Hayward rushed down court, stopped behind the 3-point arc, and unleashed a 26-footer before time expired.
Just as you'd envision games to end in Indiana.
“I thought it looked good,” Corbin said. “They ran the play right, he came off, and (Favors) hit him in stride and he had a good look.”
Unlike in his high school championship game, however, this potential game-winner bounced the wrong way. Just like the half-court shot he missed with Indianapolis-based Butler in the 2010 NCAA championship against Duke four years ago.
“I wanted that one,” Hayward said of Sunday’s last effort. “It was close and it looked good from my angle, just back-rimmed it.”
While Indiana’s David West (25 points), Paul George (22 points) and a championship-level team walked off with a hard-earned win, the Jazz didn’t take the game as a complete loss.
Corbin liked his team’s offensive execution, interior play that included a 36-32 edge in paint scoring, and weak-side rotations on defense. The most glaring fault was Utah’s 18 turnovers, which Indiana converted into 24 points.
The Jazz coach, whose team plays at Milwaukee on Monday night, was excited about lessons to be learned and called the down-to-the-wire thriller “a great step forward for us." That’s especially true considering Utah’s 99-79 clunker in Cleveland on Friday.
“They’re playing well enough together,” Corbin said of the young guys. “These are the situations that you have to go through and grow through as a group. I thought they responded very well tonight.”
“I’m proud of us for fighting there,” Hayward added. “We could have given up, but we gave ourselves a shot, gave ourselves a look.”