ALL BALL NERVE CENTER — When it rains, it pours. We waited more than a week into the season to get our first taste of last-second lusciousness — and suddenly we have an embarrassment of riches.
Tobias Harris tickled our fancy first in Philly. But it was most definitely Gordon Hayward who sent an electric shock from Salt Lake City all the way into the heart of Cleveland with his theatrics by putting his thumb down heavily on the Horry Scale.
One minute it seemed LeBron James was going to pull the rug out from under all those excited fans at EnergySolutions Arena, not to mention the Jazz, with some clutch play of his own. A clutch corner 3 and then three free throws inside the final 14 seconds.
But in the next minute LeBron was taking LeTumble to the floor and Hayward stepped into the hero’s role with a 23-footer as time expired to give the Jazz a roaring 102-100 win.
Since it’s still opening night in Horry World, let’s repeat the ground rules. The Horry Scale examines a game-winning buzzer-beater (GWBB) in the categories of difficulty, game situation, importance and celebration. Then we give it an overall grade on a scale of 1-5 Robert Horrys, the master of avoiding last-second disaster.
Remember, the Horry Scale does not measure only a game-winning shot; the Horry Scale measures several facets of a Game-Winning Buzzer-Beater. So we’re talking about not only the shot, but also the play that creates the shot, the situation and the drama, the celebrations, the whole magilla.
It was the kind of shot Hayward probably made a zillion times in the back yard while growing up in Indianapolis and he definitely made his share in the clutch during a celebrated career at Butler. But the truth is they’ve been hard to come by in four seasons in the NBA. Last season was his first in the starring role and he struggled, shooting just 41 percent from the field. That made a lot of Jazz fans struggle to accept that four-year, $63 million contract Hayward signed last summer after getting a free-agent offer sheet from the Hornets.
But here was Hayward in all his glory, doing it against the best player in the game. He took the inbounds pass from Joe Ingles at the top of the key and moved immediately to his right when LeBron slipped to the floor after making contact with Derrick Favors. It was the opening Hayward needed, taking two dribbles and letting fly before the Cavs’ defense could recover, burying the step-back fallaway over the desperately reaching arm of Tristan Thompson.
It was a game that might have stuck in the Jazz’ craw past Thanksgiving and Christmas if they had let it slip away. Utah held a 96-90 with 1:29 left to play and was still on top 98-94 with 17.9 seconds to go. But LeBron is LeBron and, on a night when he finished with 31 points, he was just really getting warmed up. First he drilled a trey from out of the left corner. Then after Alec Burks made two free throws for a 100-97 lead, the veteran James got Favors to go for a pump fake and leaned in himself to draw three free throws. He nonchalantly made them all to tie it up at 100-all. That set the stage for Hayward and the ex-Butler Bulldog sank his teeth in to the bone. Tough spot, tough shot.
From the way the crowd reacted, the streamers fell from the ceiling and all of Hayward’s Jazz teammates went bonkers, this is what it might have been like in the 1998 NBA Finals — if Michael Jordan’s shot over Bryon Russell in Game 6 rimmed out. It was that kind of wild and crazy. Hayward himself was virtually speechless in a post-game TV interview.
The bigger the profile of the opponent, the higher the score and there’s nobody bigger in the game these days than LeBron. Even if his getting-to-know-you Cavs have now sagged to a 1-3 start and are cranking up the sirens of early season overreaction-to make-your-ears-bleed level. The Jazz, under rookie coach Quin Snyder, are a young team that needs confidence. And nobody needed a shot of adrenaline more than Hayward. This was Uma Thurman sitting bolt upright in “Pulp Fiction.”
I’m giving it four Horrys for all those reasons and also for sheer early-season fun.