April 09, 2017

SALT LAKE CITY (AP) Gordon Hayward, fresh off a career-high 39 points, chuckled when asked how he refined his pull-up jumper coming off a pick from behind the arc during the offseason.

''Shooting it over and over and over this summer,'' the Jazz All-Star said. ''Nothing else to say.''

Hayward and Rudy Gobert have been the driving forces behind Utah ending a four-year playoff drought as both have taken the most significant steps forward in their careers.

Their timing couldn't have been better for the Jazz.

Utah has been one of the most injury-plagued teams in the league, missing three starters for much of the year. But those absences may have forced Hayward and Gobert into expanded leadership roles.

Hayward became a first-time All-Star and is averaging career highs in points (22.0) and rebounds (5.4). He bulked up during the offseason, endured a grueling offseason program in Salt Lake City and even quietly spent some time working with Kobe Bryant.

Gobert was not an All-Star selection but is firmly entrenched in the defensive player of the year race. The 7-foot-1 Frenchman is the centerpiece of the league's top scoring defense and has developed into a legit offensive option after barely being able to catch the ball last season.

Both spent time during the offseason working on their games, but the absences of George Hill, Derrick Favors and Rodney Hood forced Hayward and Gobert to shoulder even more of the load. The trio has missed a combined 85 games. The Jazz had their projected starting lineup together just 13 games, going 11-2.

''Necessity being the mother of invention?'' Jazz coach Quin Snyder pondered aloud. ''I think they're both very committed to their development. I don't think it's something they're consciously aware of. I think it's forced them - you walk out there and look to your right and look to your left and see a different face or see nobody - you have to develop a certain level of mental toughness.''

In the star-driven NBA, the Jazz seem to have developed two of their own.

Hayward was already considered one of the better wings in the league, but the question remained if he could be the No. 1 option on a playoff team. The extra muscle has allowed him to play a more physical game and he improved his ball-handling.

He is growing into that fourth-quarter closer that every contending team needs. Friday was his fourth 30-point game of the season. Fans are already terrified of losing him to free agency after the season and have bought billboards pleading him to sign what's sure to be a max contract to stay with the team.

''Those types of guys always get better and better,'' Timberwolves coach Tom Thibodeau said. ''The drive they have. The way they work. Every year, he's added something to his game. I think he's comfortable now. He's seen every defense that there is to see.

''It's not only what he's doing for himself. More importantly, it's what he's doing for the team. He's lifted this team to an entirely different level.''

Snyder and general manager Dennis Lindsey built this roster with defense as the foundation before adding veterans Hill, Joe Johnson and Boris Diaw last summer.

Gobert was the wild-card as a unique, yet raw, big man with loads of potential.

His length (7-9 wingspan, 9-7 standing reach) and mobile, yet slight, frame makes him a masterful rim protector and he leads the league in blocked shots. His ranks No. 2 in the league in defensive rating and No. 4 in rebounds.

Gobert, however, was a liability on offense as he struggled to catch simple passes, let alone difficult ones in traffic or on the move. That completely changed this season and Gobert has turned into one of the league's better screen-and-roll players as a big target that can gather the basketball and easily score at the rim. His points per game have jumped from 9.1 to 14.0 and his confidence has soared.

''He means so much to them,'' Clippers coach Doc Rivers said. ''Last year, if you look at the games he missed, if he had played, obviously they would have been in the playoffs. He has a huge impact on the game because of his ability to protect the rim and also his ability to get behind defenses and score as well.

''Gobert will be on the All-Star team some day because he's a rebounder. He's a defender and he's an intimidator and that's a big role.''

The Jazz clinched the Northwest Division title Friday for the first time since 2007-08 and are in the playoffs for the first time since 2012.

Now fans wait to see how far Hayward and Gobert can take them.

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