SALT LAKE CITY — It should come as no surprise that Quin Snyder would look smart in these playoffs. He has two fancy degrees, one in law, the other an MBA. But figuring out James Harden and the Houston Rockets is an education all its own.
Apparently Snyder is magna cum laude in basketball, too.
A lot of things aren’t nearly as good as their reputation, whether it’s cars, actors or cheeseburgers. But there’s no way to explain away this year’s Jazz as an accident, or even a convergence of talents. There’s that, too, but truth is Snyder has done a ridiculously good job of getting the Jazz into the second round, tied after two games.
If you need proof he’s smart, just remember he doesn’t talk about it. Instead of launching into a high-level explanation of the nuances of stopping Harden, after the Rockets’ guard had scored 41 points in Game 1, Snyder simply said, “You ask him to miss. You say 'Please, James, will you miss this time down?' And then you see if he’s magnanimous enough to do you a favor.”
After that, the Jazz went out and scaled Harden down in Game 2. He went 9 for 22 from the field, 2 for 10 from 3-point range, and the Jazz won. That wasn’t entirely Snyder’s coaching; some of it was Harden simply missing shots. But it wasn’t unrelated. The Jazz’s disruption yielded 32 points to Harden, but 12 were at the foul line.
It was a number they could live with.
Listing all the important things Snyder has done with his team reads like, yes, a legal brief. Here are just a few:
• He signed off on the drafting of Donovan Mitchell, a No. 13 pick that no one expected to arrive ready-made. Snyder gave the reins to Mitchell in spite of the rookie’s inexperience.
• He brought out the rude in Rudy Gobert. He didn’t draft the French big man, but he did make him into a Defensive Player of the Year candidate. The overused phrase “coaching them up” was never more apropos. Up, and up, and up.
• He immediately filled the Gordon Gap. No wonder Snyder quickly moved on after star forward Gordon Hayward went to Boston. It’s not unlikely Snyder had a plan in mind long before Hayward ever announced his departure.
• He made defense the Jazz’s calling card by committing to long, multi-position players such as Mitchell, Dante Exum, Royce O’Neale, Alec Burks and Joe Ingles, and told them a way to stay on the court was to impede traffic. They’ve been doing it ever since.
• He turned Slow-mo Joe into Big Show Joe. Ingles is a deadeye 3-point shooter, fourth best in the league. The small forward freely allows that Snyder wants him to keep shooting, even on nights he is missing. Most nights Ingles is as deadly as a crocodile.
• He has, without his starting point guard, defeated a 65-win team in the postseason. Ricky Rubio’s hamstring problem persists, but Snyder has used Mitchell and Ingles to set up the offense, as well as O’Neale, Exum and Raul Neto. Still, the Jazz are missing the creative, competitive and big point guard that is — for this year and in this system — irreplaceable. Yet the Jazz keep playing.
• He has masked weaknesses. The Jazz committed 17 turnovers had seven shots blocked Wednesday. They won anyway. Snyder has a knack for making his team look good, even when the stats say otherwise.
After the season ends, Mitchell and Gobert will get considerable credit for the Jazz’s turnaround. It’s all deserved. But if ever there were evidence that coaching actually matters in the NBA, it’s Snyder.
This week, some ancient horse bones, believed to be 2,000 years old, were discovered in a Lehi family’s yard. Archaeologists say that’s a big deal. But knowing the low-profile Jazz have a coach this good? That’s a discovery in a class by itself.