SALT LAKE CITY — Like classical music and Betty White, the Jazz’s win streak seemed destined to continue in perpetuity. But two months after it began, it finally ended on Tuesday, in the same place it started: at the feet of the Atlanta Hawks.
In January, the Jazz lost to the Hawks, dropping their record to 19-28, the low point of the season. Tuesday, Atlanta shocked the Jazz 99-94.
Still two games above the playoff waterline, and a game out of sixth place, the Jazz are hoping to avoid a first round playoff pairing with Houston or Golden State. Which raises the question: How did they get from one Atlanta game to the next with only two losses and 21 wins in between?
Blame Quin Snyder, the smartest guy in the room — even when the room seats 18,300.
The Jazz are down to 11 remaining games, and darned if they aren’t still in serious playoff contention, sans-Gordon Hayward. They’re without any All-Stars. Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell are headed that direction, but still.
When Gobert went down with a sprained knee in December for a month-long absence — which followed a previous month-long injury absence — it would have been easy to write off the Jazz. Which I actually did.
After his first injury, Nov. 13, my column ran under this headline: “Jazz’s ‘Rudy moment’ makes playoffs a wish.”
How was I to know Joe Ingles would become Joe Cool? He missed a shot in the final ticks on Tuesday, but for most of the year he’s been cash in the bank.
“With Gobert in the lineup, the Jazz are a fair team with an excellent coach. Without him they’re a collection of spare parts,” I wrote. “That’s not good enough to make the playoffs.”
I was right about Gobert’s value. Since his return the second time, the Jazz are 22-5. But I was wrong to underestimate Snyder’s ability to push his team through the doldrums in order to still be in good playoff position.
Which is why he should be voted Coach of the Year.
Shouldn’t it at least be a consideration?
“Yeah, I hadn’t thought about that, but there’s no doubt,” said Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer, who hired Snyder as an assistant in 2013. “Considering where they were sitting 20 to 22 games ago, to go on a run like they’re on and deal with the injuries and just change. When you have a rookie that has the responsibility that Donovan Mitchell has, there’s a lot of things going well, and I think Quin has a big part in that.”
Snyder is the only COY candidate without at least one All-Star player.
While Utahns know Snyder’s contribution, few outsiders do. Coach of the Year discussions are centered around Portland’s Terry Stotts, Toronto’s Dwane Casey, Indiana’s Nate McMillan, Houston’s Mike D’Antoni or Boston’s Brad Stevens.
While Stevens has guided the Celtics into second place in the Eastern Conference, minus the injured Hayward, he still had five-time All-Stars Kyrie Irving and Al Horford, and Rookie of the Year candidate Jayson Tatum. Irving has struggled with injuries, and hasn’t played since March 11, yet even with a balky knee, he’s averaging 24 points and five assists.
McMillan lost Paul George to Oklahoma City but has All-Star Victor Oladipo — who has a steal in 54 consecutive games — and a nice supporting group. Casey’s twin All-Stars Kyle Lowry and Demar DeRozan could finish fourth in the East all by their lonesome.
Stotts has two premier guards of his own in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum.
In some ways, the Jazz are about where they were supposed to be. Sports Illustrated ranked them sixth in the West, ESPN eighth, before the season started. But that was before anyone knew Gobert would miss 26 games and Thabo Sefolosha 33.
FiveThirtyEight still gives the Jazz a 90 percent chance of making the playoffs.
Gee, why so low?
Snyder got the Jazz into the second round of the playoffs last year, and was a contender for COY. But he did so with a matured All-Star in Hayward and former All-Star Joe Johnson. This year he energized Ricky Rubio, unleashed Donovan Mitchell, blended Jae Crowder, fired up Rudy Gobert, ramped up the league’s best defense and convinced Ingles he’s actually Ray Allen.
Most of all, he sold his team on itself.
Unless Tuesday’s loss completely derails the Jazz's playoff drive, he still gets points for surprising everyone.
I wouldn’t be outraged if any of the aforementioned coaches wins the coaching award, I’d just be reminded that Jerry Sloan never won one, despite a Hall of Fame career. There always seemed to be a trendier choice. But there ought to be an exception now, for a coach who got his team someplace when there shouldn’t have been any place at all to go.