Hayward scores 34 points, Jazz beat Nuggets
The Denver Nuggets know they’ll need everybody healthy as they get ready to face Oklahoma City this weekend in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.
“It definitely scared me, no question,” Nuggets teammate Raymond Felton said of seeing Lawson roll his ankle early in the second quarter Wednesday night in a 107-103 loss to the Utah Jazz in the regular-season finale. “But he’s all right. He’ll be ready.”
Despite losing Wednesday, and dropping a pair of games last week to the Thunder, the Nuggets say they, too, are ready for the postseason to begin.
“It ain’t about no payback,” Felton said about facing the fourth-seeded Thunder. “It’s about trying to win the series.”
The Nuggets endured a rollercoaster season, dealing with persistent Carmelo Anthony trade rumors, then regrouping after the blockbuster trade sent Anthony and Chauncey Billups to the New York Knicks in late-February.
They went 18-7 the rest of the way to finish 50-32, with Wednesday’s game having no bearing on the playoffs as the Nuggets had already locked up the No. 5 seed.
“I don’t think anybody expected us to win this many games,” Nuggets coach George Karl said. “But the mental toughness and energy of this team has been first class.”
He still thinks his team is pretty special, even though reserves playing Wednesday late made some uncharacteristic mistakes after the Nuggets took a 103-99 lead with 2:10 remaining.
Devin Harris scored on a layup for Utah, Gordon Hayward sank two free throws and Al Jefferson’s 4-foot turnaround jumper with 35 seconds left put Utah ahead for good. Hayward added two more free throws for a career-high 34 points to seal the victory for Utah after J.R. Smith was called for an offensive foul.
Wilson Chandler led Denver with 27 points.
Afterward, Jazz players stayed on the floor to thank the fans for their support despite the woeful season, which saw Utah become the only team in NBA history to start 15-5 and 27-13 and not make the playoffs.
The Jazz finished 39-43, with the win giving them a 21-20 home mark. It is the first time in six years that they won’t be in the playoffs, but the sudden resignation of Hall of Fame coach Jerry Sloan, injuries and trade of All-Star point guard Deron Willams had something to do with that.
“It was exciting just to win the game for the fans and to see Gordon have a wonderful game,” said Jefferson, who started all 82 games this season after being acquired from Minnesota. He finished with 17 points Wednesday.
“I feel a lot better at this time of the year going home because I know there’s a bright future for us.”
It starts with rookies Hayward and Derrick Favors, the latter acquired along with Harris in a the deal that sent Williams to the New Jersey Nets on Feb. 23.
Hayward’s 34 points (on 12-of-17 shooting and five 3-pointers) were the most by a Jazz rookie since Jerry Eaves had 35 on March 16, 1983, at Detroit.
“I don’t feel like a rookie anymore after 82 games,” said Hayward, the former Butler star who also made 5 of 5 free throws. “It’s really good going into the offseason to have these last games in my back pocket. I’ll pull those out when I need motivation in the off-season.”
The Nuggets, meanwhile, need only think back to April 5 and Friday when they lost 101-94 and 104-89 to the Thunder.
Oklahoma City forward Kevin Durant scored 32 and 28 points, respectively, in those losses.
“We start 0-0,” said Kenyon Martin, one of six Nuggets players to sit out Wednesday’s regular-season finale. “Regular-season games don’t count. But we played them four times already. It’s going to make for a good, physical tough series.”
But can they handle Durant?
“We’ll be all right,” said Martin, who figures to be one of three players Denver will throw at the Thunder star. “We just need to make it as tough as possible on him. He’s a great player; we all know that. We just have to make him do things he’s not comfortable doing”.