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Preview: Gordon Hayward returns to Utah to face the Jazz juggernaut

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The Hornets go on the road to face the red hot Utah Jazz with their NBA best 24-6 record.

Utah Jazz v Charlotte Hornets Photo by Brock Williams-Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

What: Charlotte Hornets (14-15) at Utah Jazz (24-6)

When: 9:00 pm EST

Where: Vivint Arena; Salt Lake City, Utah

How to watch: Fox Sports Southeast, NBA League Pass

Gordon Hayward is returning to face the team that drafted him in No. 9 overall in 2010 as a skinny kid out of Butler then developed him into an All-Star in 2016-17. The Jazz are one of the few NBA teams allowing a small number of fans in the stands, and I suspect they will boo Hayward from warmups until he leaves the floor. I know from personal experience. I was born and raised in a suburb of Salt Lake City (shout-out to West Valley City!) and lived in Utah for most of my first 26 years of life. Though I’ve lived in North Carolina since 2003, most of my family still lives in Utah.

About 95% of Utah’s sports world revolves around the Utah Jazz, BYU Cougars, and Utah Utes. The Jazz are likely the only major professional franchise Utah will ever have and many Utahns are deeply grateful and extremely loyal to their team for giving their state this national relevance. Jazz fans - and I know many of them - are more passionate, educated, and emotional about their home team than nearly any fanbase I’ve ever encountered in any sport.

It’s so hard for the Jazz as a small market team in an low-profile, snow-covered state to land All-Star free agents, so Gordon Hayward was viewed as the long-term franchise cornerstone, the next Stockton or Malone. Instead, he bolted for the Boston Celtics in 2017 and Jazz fans took it personally. They viewed him as a traitor. A coward who couldn’t lead a team on his own. A sellout. Forget the Jazz embracing him as an organization, most of the residents of the state felt like they had embraced Gordon as part of their community. Their neighbor. Their friend. They were proud of him. He was “theirs”. Then - poof! - he was a Celtic. This wasn’t business for Jazz fans. This was personal.

Most Jazz fans will never forgive him. Yes, they feel sympathy for his gruesome 2017 foot injury and their previous love for Gordon has been devotedly channeled into Donovan Mitchell, but Hayward the traitor abandoning Utah for the Boston Celtics will always sting in the Beehive State.

Utah Jazz overview

The Jazz are arguably the NBA’s best team and sport the league’s best record. Guard Donovan Mitchell (24.6 PPG, 5.1 APG) has always been able to attack the basket with his incredible athleticism, but this year he’s also hitting a career high 39% from the 3-point line. Center Rudy Gobert, a four-time All-Defensive selection and two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, is dominating in the paint once again. His Defensive Rating of 102.5 ranks 8th in the league (min. 10 GP, 20 MPG).

The biggest story for the Jazz this year has been the reemergence of point guard Mike Conley. He joined Utah last year and just never clicked with the rest of the roster, ultimately averaging 14.4 points on a disappointing 41% from the field. That’s changed this season. Conley is playing at a borderline All-Star level with averages of 16.5 points and 5.6 assists per game while connecting on a career best 41% from the 3-point line. Impressively, Conley’s defensive rating 99.7 ranks second in the entire league.

Another huge addition the Jazz made last year was trading for guard Jordan Clarkson who provides the aggressive bench scoring Utah lacked in previous years. His 18.2 points per game ranks second on the team. Forwards Bojan Bogdanovic (15.5 PPG, 40% 3PT) and Joe Ingles (11.5 PPG, 45% 3PT) are smart, versatile, and effective players while Royce O’Neal plays tenacious defense and does the dirty work. Reserve center Derrick Favors gives Utah a very capable 16 minutes every night.

How the Hornets can win

This one is going to be tough, friends. The Jazz had won 20 of their last 21 (!!!) before losing to the Los Angeles Clippers on Friday night. Utah simply has more size, shooting, depth, and experience than the Hornets. When these two teams recently played in Charlotte on February 5th, Utah put up 138 points, built a 27-point third quarter lead, and won by 17. Now Charlotte goes on the road to a hostile environment, at least by the standards of today’s mostly empty arenas.

The Hornets are going to have to get hot from the 3-point line to win this one. Having Charlotte’s perimeter players attack Rudy Gobert at the rim is a losing proposition. In their last meeting Gobert gobbled up 15 rebounds and rejected four shots, so let’s hope the Hornets can get it rolling from deep.

This might sound crazy, but I’d like to see what Charlotte’s small ball lineup could accomplish with Miles Bridges at the 4 and PJ Washington at the 5. Perhaps they could run Gobert off the floor and make life difficult for Utah’s pick-and-roll/isolation defensive rotations. Or they might get crushed. Coach Borrego is going to have to do something different in this game because if the Hornets just throw their traditional lineup and game plan at this Jazz juggernaut, Utah will steamroll to another easy victory.

Poll

What’s your prediction for tonight’s game?

This poll is closed

  • 2%
    Hornets win easy
    (7 votes)
  • 9%
    Hornets win a close on
    (24 votes)
  • 11%
    Jazz win a close one
    (29 votes)
  • 75%
    Jazz win easy
    (182 votes)
242 votes total Vote Now