Trey Lyles was caught off guard by an unexpected start. He was hard to guard the rest of the afternoon.
The former University of Kentucky star scored a career-high 22 points, Gordon Hayward helped fuel a 24-0 third-quarter run and the Utah Jazz maintained their slim lead for the last playoff spot in the Western Conference with a 100-84 win over the Denver Nuggets on Sunday.
“You have to give it to our defense,” Lyles told The Salt Lake Tribune. “Defensively in the third quarter we locked down and we went on that big run. And that’s pretty much what propelled us the rest of the game.”
All five starters reached double figures for the Jazz (40-40), who have a one-game cushion over Houston (39-41) with two games remaining. The Rockets defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 130-110 earlier Sunday.
Lyles didn’t find out he was starting until moments before the opening tip, when Derrick Favors was a late scratch because of right knee soreness. All Lyles did was provide an offensive spark by hitting four three-pointers. He also had six rebounds and two assists.
“He was outstanding for us,” teammate Gordon Hayward told the Deseret News. “He kept us in the game there early. He’s really stepped up to the challenge. I’m proud of him.”
Lyles’ performance wasn’t a surprise to Coach Quin Snyder, who’s come to expect performances like this from players such as Lyles.
“That’s the thing about this team. It’s been happening all year,” Snyder said. “Individually, we’ve got guys that have depth of character. And then when you put them together collectively, they’ve been pulling together all year. It was good to see.”
No time for Utah to celebrate this one, though. The Jazz have another big game Monday against Dallas (41-39) — a team currently seventh in the playoff chase.
“I don’t have to talk a whole lot about it,” Snyder said of the importance. “It speaks for itself.”