LOS ANGELES — Gordon Hayward was red-hot Tuesday night.
In multiple ways.
While sporting a farmer's sunburn acquired from too much off-day time by the beach, the rookie scorched the nets and roasted the Los Angeles Lakers with a career-best outing in the Utah Jazz's stunning 86-85 victory at Staples Center.
Hayward set a new career-high with 22 points — eclipsing the previous mark he'd set only two days earlier — on 9-for-14 shooting.
After missing a first attempt, Hayward swished a second free throw with 6.0 seconds remaining. Because Kobe Bryant — hounded by Hayward — lost control of the ball on the Lakers' ensuing possession, that freebie proved to the game-winner.
"It was fun," a smiling Hayward said in an unusually chipper Jazz locker room. "When you're out there competing, especially against Kobe Bryant — growing up you idolize him — so it was a lot of fun."
The rookie won over at least one fan in L.A.
"I'm very, very fond of him. He's a very skilled all-around player," Bryant said. "I think he is going to have a very bright future in this league. (Hayward) reminds me of a more talented Jeff Hornacek. Jeff couldn't put the ball on the floor as well as he can."
Fun isn't a word that has been used around the Jazz much lately, but there were plenty of smiles after this one.
Despite playing with only nine healthy players — and then seeing C.J. Miles tweak his ankle a bit — the Jazz snapped a couple of fun-sapping slumps.
Utah — boosted by Hayward and fellow rookie lottery pick Derrick Favors (14 points, 11 rebounds) — won for the first time since March 16 in Minnesota, ending a season-worst eight-game skid.
The Jazz also ended up on the right side of the scoreboard for the first time in 18 outings against their nemesis, having lost 17 straight to the Lakers when counting regular season and playoff games.
"The last game we played like we were trying to get the season over," Jazz center Al Jefferson said, referring to Sunday's lackluster 106-97 loss in Sacramento. "Tonight we played like we have some heart.
"Gotta just give credit to the young guys," Big Al added. "I think Derrick and Gordon came in and lifted us up."
The 21-year-old Hayward and 19-year-old Favors might have sold a few fans on buying future season tickets with the way they teamed up in the fourth quarter.
Hayward scored 10 points in the final period alone, including a sweet reverse layup, a mid-range shot, a 3-pointer and a dazzling drive-and-dunk that even elicited oohs and aahs from the opposing crowd.
"I think he played good. He surprised a lot of people out there," said Favors, who did the same thing to a lesser effect. "I think he played good. He's going to be a good player."
The huge night couldn't have come at a better time for the slumping Jazz or for the ex-Butler standout, who was seriously down in the dumps about the performance of his former school in Monday's ugly NCAA championship loss.
"I'm extremely happy for him," Jazz coach Tyrone Corbin said.
Hayward's defense on Bryant was also as stellar as an opponent's defense on the score-at-will superstar can be.
Bryant finished with a Laker-high 20 points, but he missed 12 of 18 shots and he bobbled away the ball into Jefferson's hands instead of putting up a game-winner as time expired.
"He did a great job on both ends of the floor," Corbin continued, "not only making plays offensively, but I thought he did a great job defensively playing Kobe, not being afraid of who he is and just doing a good job of staying down, staying in front — between him and the basket."
Hayward received all sorts of advice from his elders for defending Kobe on the last play.
"Big Al and Paul (Millsap) came up to me right away and said, stay down on his fake," Hayward said. "And it's tempting. He puts the ball right there and it's a really good shot fake and you want to go for it. But (I tried to) stay disciplined and stay down and force a tough look."
Hayward admitted he didn't touch the ball when Bryant lost it, but he was in the right place at the right time.
And that's seemed to be the case more often for the youngster who seems to be growing up on a game-by-game basis for the Jazz as his rookie season progresses.
"Confidence is the big key for him because he's got the skills. He got a high IQ of the game," Jefferson said. "When he get his confidence he's going to be an unbelievable player, and he's showing it now. "
Favors also had a strong finish with six fourth-quarter points. Millsap also had 22 points for the Jazz, who improved to 37-41 with the rare win over the 55-22 two-time defending champs.
"We did a great job of bringing a lot of energy and they really played hard concentrating on what we wanted to get done, executing our offense, and putting pressure on them defensively," Corbin said. "Down the stretch the rookies did a good job of just fighting hard in there. It's a great win for us."
Email: [email protected]