SALT LAKE CITY — As the crowdsourcing at the center position continues for the Utah Jazz, it becomes more apparent than ever there’s no replacing Rudy Gobert. They have done their best, playing Derrick Favors, following up with Jeff Withey and doubling up defensively, hoping to keep the Clippers from doing what they did on Tuesday.
That game was a dunk-a-thon in the first half. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan had the Jazz calling, “Incoming!” Meanwhile, the Clippers outrebounded the Jazz by six. The entire Utah team had two blocks, fewer than Gobert’s average.
There is no guarantee when Gobert will return. But every night he’s gone is an adjustment. Even when he does return, he likely won’t be at full speed. Either way, the Jazz can mitigate that if Gordon Hayward plays like the superstar he intends to be. If he doesn’t, they can say farewell to any hopes of advancing beyond the first round.
Hayward has played in only one postseason series, in 2012, when he was a wide-eyed kid and Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap were the grownups. Little was expected of Hayward and less was delivered. He shot 18 percent in the four games.
Through two games this year, his shooting has been twice as good. But 36 percent still isn’t up to standard. The postseason is where both players and their organizations earn their big dollars.
This has been a breakout year for Hayward. He made his first All-Star team and his numbers were the best of his career. His willingness to be the team’s anchor has grown like his biceps and facial hair. He not only knows he is the team’s top player, he indirectly admits it. So this would be a good time to start playing like one — for himself, if not his team.
With free agency approaching, a big postseason can only enhance his value league-wide and at home. But so far the Clippers’ Luc Mbah a Moute has been on him like a sunburn. In Game 1, Hayward scored 19 points, but just 14 came from the field, on 7-of-18 shooting. Game 2 was similar, a 20-point effort. Hayward was minus-17 in the plus-minus, going 3-for-6 from 3-point distance but just 2-for-9 elsewhere, admitting he “missed way too many 2s.”
“You know,” Clippers coach Doc Rivers said, “we tried to match (Mbah a Moute’s) minutes with Gordon. I thought Gordon had one extra minute more than Luc. Other than that, we tried to match his minutes together and Luc was terrific.”
Clippers guard Chris Paul was even more animated.
“Luc,” he said, “was amazing I see Gordon had 20 points. Probably 20 of the toughest points he ever had to get. Luc just constantly keeps coming. I think he’s so underappreciated.”
Not by the Jazz.
He’s made their best player look average.
Last time the Jazz were in the playoffs, Hayward was in his second season, so carrying the team wasn’t his job. Now it is. That’s a big assignment, especially if Gobert is out. The 7-foot center’s 14 points a game have been badly missed, but so is the mere threat of him scoring. Any absence means added pressure to Hayward.
Meanwhile, nobody gets to rest defensively without their backstop.
So if Hayward plans on becoming a superstar, this is his first big chance to prove it. All-Star Game inclusion is awarded via a vote, or the coaches’ appointment, but the playoffs are the true proving ground. Russell Westbrook, James Harden, LeBron James and Kevin Durant are players whose postseason performances scream, “I got this.” For Hayward so far it’s been, “What do I do with this?”
Legendary players, too, can have poor games. But if Hayward stays at this pace, he’ll enter free-agent season with the reputation as a fine player, but not a transcendent one. Now is his chance to show whether he’s comfortable with that.