The NBA belongs to cruel stepmothers, not Cinderellas. The league doesn’t celebrate your accomplishments before you got there, rarely even gives you a chance to look back and appreciate them.
It does take a break on the night of the NCAA championship, though, even if the endless routine of arena-bus-flight doesn’t stop. So it was that the year after leading Butler to an unexpected run to the final game of the tournament, when he was playing in front of 70,000 people and the largest TV audience to watch a college basketball game in 11 years, Jazz rookie guard Gordon Hayward found himself alone in a Los Angeles hotel room, rooting for his old teammates against Connecticut.
“Man, it was tough watching my guys last night,” Hayward said of a game that featured epically futile shooting as his Bulldogs lost to the Huskies. “Glued to my TV set, all by myself. I was rooting for them so hard. I know it was tough to go all the way back. They had such a great run. I don’t think they played poorly, they just missed shots. It’s tough when you do that.”
You know who’d tell you the same thing? Kobe Bryant and Al Jefferson, two of the top 20 scorers in the NBA. Jefferson shot 5-for-18 and Bryant had more turnovers (seven) than field goals (six), the struggles indicative of a game that was every bit as hard to watch as Connecticut-Butler. Or this year's Oscar broadcast. Utah shot 40 percent and that was good enough to win by a point, 86-85, on a night the Lakers shot 38 percent and had 19 turnovers.
(For the Lakers it all but doomed their hopes of catching the Spurs for the best record in the league, leaving them three games behind in the loss column. But as Derek Fisher said, what difference does home-court advantage in the playoffs make if you can’t win home games? The Lakers have dropped their past two at Staples Center. This loss to an injury-riddled non-playoff team was as bad as they’ve looked all year. “You can’t dissect this game,” Lamar Odom advised reporters. “Don’t get intricate in your writing. We played bad, really bad.”)
The one surprising, stellar offensive player was Hayward, matched up for much of the night against Bryant, outscoring him 22-20, and prompting teammate Earl Watson to compare Hayward to Jerry West. He also grabbed six rebounds to Bryant’s three and matched Bryant’s five assists. On repeated attempts Bryant couldn’t get past Hayward. One time Hayward stole the Bryant stole the ball from him and went the other way for a layup and three-point-play opportunity.
Hayward was able to get by Bryant, including a dash into the lane for a dunk and another baseline drive and nice pass to a cutting Derrick Favors.
And he won the final duel, drawing a foul to make the go-ahead free throw with six seconds remaining and bothering Bryant enough to cause the ball to harmlessly slip out of his hands as Bryant attempted a game-winning shot.
It was easily the best performance of Hayward's up-and-down first season that’s included 21 games in which he played and didn’t score. He struggled to learn the offense at first, to the frustration of coach Jerry Sloan and point guard Deron Williams. (Hard to believe that 67 games into his career Hayward is still with the Jazz and Sloan and Williams are gone.) With the Jazz out of the playoff race, new coach Tyrone Corbin has granted Hayward more playing time of late and Hayward has produced four double-digit scoring nights in his past six games.
“It’s getting there,” Hayward said. “Little by little. There’s times when you’re still over-pressing a little bit, but when you’re just aggressive it’s better.”
He held his ground against Bryant, who seemed intent on breaking the rookie into NBA life.
“I think so, a little bit,” Hayward said. “He elbowed me in the second half, and I gave him an elbow in the fourth quarter. We were going at it, competing. It was fun because you grow up watching Kobe doing his thing against everyone else and now you’re kind of out there as a competitor just trying to play as hard as you can against him.”
And that’s what prompted the West comparison -- in personality, not performance. He wasn’t that good.
“He’s a humble guy,” Watson said. “At the same time when he gets on the court he’s not going to back down from anybody.”
Bryant said he was “very, very fond” of Hayward.
“He’s a very skilled, all-around player," Bryant said. "I think he’s going to have a very bright future in this league. He reminds me of a more talented Jeff Hornacek. Jeff couldn’t put the ball on the floor as well as he can.”
Phil Jackson, who rarely even acknowledges rookies, gave serious props to Hayward. Used his full name, pronounced it right and everything.
“I wish Gordon Hayward would have stayed in college and helped Butler last night instead of kicking our butt,” Jackson said.
Instead, the Lakers were on the wrong side of the one thing that went right for Butler’s program this week.
“I don’t know if it makes up for [the championship loss] by any means,” Hayward said. “But it’s still satisfying.”