SALT LAKE CITY — The reception for Gordon Hayward had all the vehemence a hot-blooded Jazz fan could want. There was loud booing during introductions for the Jazz’s 123-115 win over Boston on Friday. The crowd howled each time he touched the ball.
But nobody threw garbage and no one was escorted out.
It might not have been civil, but at least it was civilized.
Hayward returned to Salt Lake as one of the least popular/popular players in franchise history. Karl Malone drew boos upon returning as a Laker, but after 18 years in Utah, his legacy was set. Deron Williams was greeted like a deserter after triggering the end of Jerry Sloan’s career. But Williams was traded, so his return wasn’t quite as personal.
Hayward, on the other hand, kept the Jazz on hold in the summer of 2017 before signing with Boston as a free agent. He dodged media requests, instead publishing a glare-inducing farewell in The Players’ Tribune (“you mean the world to me …”).
But he wasn’t the Jazz’s biggest problem going into Friday’s game. It was getting back the groove they had last year, via focused defense and great passing on offense. That, for the most part, happened. It was their second home win after the team’s first 0-4 start at home since the team was in New Orleans.
Hayward hasn’t exactly set the league ablaze as a Celtic, largely due to a season-ending — and starting — injury last year. This season he has looked like the pre-All-Star Hayward, plagued by patches of poor shooting. His best night so far has been an 18-point outing against Milwaukee a week ago. It was one of only three games in which he has made half his shots.
There also have been shooting nights like this: 4-for-12, 1-5, 3-10 and 2-10. Next week is the five-year anniversary of his ghastly 1-for-17 shooting performance against New Orleans.
Friday he went 3-for-9 from the field, but made all six free throws.
The Hayward of old: not terrible, but not all that good.
While mocking Hayward might have been the plan for Jazz fans, there were bigger issues by the time the game rolled around. The Jazz needed to get their balance. Wednesday’s win over bottom-feeding Dallas didn’t reveal much.
In the buildup, Hayward took his usual route: avoidance. He didn’t speak with media at shootaround or during pregame interviews. That’s his call. But other unpopular returnees — Williams included — understood the interest, as well as the obligation. Not Hayward. He said he’d handle media interviews after the game — and after some of the media had gone home.
Friday afternoon, the Jazz’s Twitter account posted video of Hayward as a Jazz player, with the comment, “Welcome back, Gordon.”
Negative replies ranged from “No!” to “Stupid!” to “Fire the intern who posted this.”
Not everyone was comfortable taking the high road.
After warming up, 40 minutes beforehand, Hayward exited the court, where dozens of fans hung near the railing, hoping for an autograph. Although teammates stopped to sign, Hayward breezed past. When he returned just before tipoff he was booed with every touch. Fans even cheered when he missed.
That was all before tipoff.
The noise increased once the game began.
During introductions, Hayward was met with a volley of huzzahs. He quickly got on the books with a layup 1½ minutes into the game.5 comments on this story
Intriguing as Hayward’s return was, it took a backseat to worries the Jazz aren’t as good as expected. Their normally reliable defense has been below expectations. Utah came into the game ranked 27th in opponent field goal percentage, 19th in 3-point percentage and 12th in points allowed.
Their 5-6 overall start was their worst since 2014-15.
But by shooting 66 percent from the field, holding Boston to 44 percent, and dominating the glass, the Jazz turned in their biggest win so far. Meanwhile, nobody got into a fight and nobody on the team let things get personal with Hayward.
Sixteen months after he left, the Hayward story was officially history, as the Jazz beat one of the teams favored to win the East.
For them, the best revenge is looking good.