Look deep, Josh: it’s there. It’s 12 moves away, but it’s there -- you’ve got him…take his pawn with your pawn. G takes F6, forking his bishop and rook. Don’t take back with the bishop; you’ll need that to guard E7. He’ll take back either his bishop or his knight. When he does -- this is the hard part -- sacrifice your rook. Capture him on 6F and get him to check. King has to take your rook. He takes F6. Give him the knight to check E7, forking his king and rook. He’ll move to safety. King-F5. Take his rook with your knight. He’ll take back with his king…and you’ve got him.
-- Bruce Pandolfini, chess master, hoping/channeling his match-winning strategy to his pupil, Josh Waitzkin, in "Searching For Bobby Fisher"
It is the play that brought fame to the ficticious Norman Dale and the real Damian Lillard. Most of the time, though, it’s not nearly that dramatic: it’s part of every coach’s toolbox from the CYO to the NBA. But at this time of year, like everything else, it takes on a bigger profile and its successes are more celebrated.
It’s the ATO. As in, After Timeout: one of a series of plays designed by the coach that are used specifically after timeouts. ATOs are used throughout a game, rendering their importance relative: a basket out of an ATO in the second quarter is just as crucial as one that occurs with four seconds left in the game. The former, though, doesn’t get shown on the JumboTron to inspire the home crowd down the stretch.
ATOs are the product of thousands of hours of studying cutups, videos and other film of opponents, from advance scouts to assistant coaches to coaches. Any, and all, have their ideas and suggestions. But it’s the coach who has to pull the trigger and decide what will work best when his team needs a basket the most.
“It’s a critical situation for many reasons, but a consistent level of success is going to give your players an awful lot of confidence in what you’re doing as a team,” says Mavericks coach Rick Carlisle, considered one of the best ATO designers in the NBA. “The way things are evening out in our league, with a finite amount of money that everyone can spend on players, so much is hinging on one or two possessions a game. It’s amazing. Even an ATO drawn up in the first quarter can be the difference between winning and losing a game.”
A good ATO has several components.
First and foremost, it produces the best possible shot in the existing circumstance, depending on score, available personnel and other factors.
Second, it almost always forces the defense to move away from the player who ultimately will get the shot, usually through weakside misdirection -- designed deception so the defense can’t set up and protect all parts of the paint -- “boxes and elbows,” as coaches say.
Third, it has multiple options that naturally flow out of the offensive action, the next option occurring immediately after if the last one has been discovered and disarmed.
“It’s drawing up a play and getting the shot you want,” said Cleveland Cavaliers veteran swingman James Jones. “It may be a play for your star. Everyone knows it’s going to him. But if you draw it up effectively, you force the defense to give that guy the shot. ‘Cause otherwise, they give up higher percentage shots at every clip. So it may be a backdoor lob/rip, to a cross, or maybe a backdoor lob/rip to a pindown and a flare. If they try to take away the backdoor lob, it takes a body off of him, and then the pindown, if you try to take that away, it opens up another guy to a slip or a midrange shot. The flare gives you a wide-open three. So you end up playing percentages, but the percentages means the ball winds up going into your best player’s hands.”
But a good ATO involves all five players. Of course, talent matters, and more often than not, LeBron James or Kyrie Irving is going to wind up with the ball for the Cavs out of a set, whether they wind up shooting it or not. But good players engaged in action away from the ball can create all manner of potential deception away from the actual target. It could be just as simple as having a dead-eye shooter in the corner that draws a single defender, so you’re playing four on four and create more space for the guy who’s really going to take the shot.
Larry Brown and Doug Collins were renowned for their ATO prowess among coaches. Today, Boston Celtics coach Brad Stevens, Carlisle, Miami Heat coach Erik Spoelstra, LA Clippers coach Doc Rivers and San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich get high marks among their brethren. And most brought up former assistants who now also design excellent ATOs for their own teams – the Portland Trail Blazers’ Terry Stotts and Toronto Raptors’ Dwane Casey (Carlisle), as well as the Memphis Grizzlies’ David Fizdale and Cleveland Cavaliers’ Tyronn Lue (Rivers) and the Atlanta Hawks’ Mike Budenholzer (Popovich).
All coaches have mentors. Brown brought Popovich from Division III Pomona-Pitzer to Kansas, and from Kansas to the NBA. Popovich learned the NBA game from Brown in San Antonio and Don Nelson at Golden State. Rivers learned from Mike Fratello and Pat Riley -- who also elevated Spoelstra to the head spot in Miami. And Carlisle converted from player to coach under two of the best Hall of Famers -- Bill Fitch in New Jersey and Chuck Daly in Orlando.
The late Daly, who won back-to-back titles with the Detroit Pistons, “was one of the masters,” Carlisle said. “He was a great freestyler. He could see one little thing that was happening consistently in a game and he could come up with an action or a situation to take advantage of them. Some guys like Chuck and like Pop have a real touch. It’s definitely an art.”
Lue played for Phil Jackson, Collins and Jeff Van Gundy during his 11-year career, so he saw the best coaches draw up plays under duress.
“But Doc was definitely, from what I’ve been around, the best that I’ve seen,” Lue says. “I was here for four years (with Boston as an assistant coach under Rivers), and every shootaround he would come in and draw, like, six plays up, have the guys come out, draw plays up and go through them and see if he liked them and see if they worked. It was like 830-some ATOs that he had drawn up. Every time he did I would draw them up or have the video guys put them on paper for me so I’d have it in my notebook. But he never used a lot of them -- they were just on his mind, things he wanted to run.”
When you get this deep in the playoffs, the tiniest edge can become a big one, quickly. A coach who can calmly draw up an ATO to get his team a great look at a basket in a late-game situation can pay off large chunks of the (likely) lucrative contract under which he performs.
“The one thing I’ve always said about good ATOs is, they keep your players stimulated,” said Cavaliers assistant coach Larry Drew, a former coach in Atlanta and Milwaukee. “They may fall in love with something that you do from an ATO standpoint. You may go away from it. At some point, you come back to it. When you come back to it, they know exactly what you’re doing; they know exactly what you’re looking for. But you’ve already created a number of other things. They love it. And they respect it. They respect the fact that you can go away from an ATO you used to run, and you can draw up something that’s just as nice.”
Drew is renowned for his ATO prowess -- “LD, he’s an animal,” Jones said -- and Lue is comfortable enough in his own skin to take ATO suggestions from him.
“He’s tremendously receptive,” Drew said. “When I first took the job, that was one of the first things he and I had conversations about. He brought it up. And this is when he was associate head when (David) Blatt was here. He always brought it up, about my ATOs, particularly end of game stuff. We always had conversations about it. Because, as you know, you’ve got to be able to have something going down the home stretch. When I was the head, I really took a lot of pride in that, particularly on the road. Games are won and lost in that last stretch of possessions. It’s just important that you’ve got to have something you can go to.”
Against Boston, the Cavs faced one of the best ATO designers in Stevens. He may still be relatively young in terms of NBA experience, but Stevens brought a rep from college as a brilliant end of game tactician, and he’s only burnished it in his four years in Boston.
“He’s unpredictable,” Lue said of Stevens. “He never runs the same thing twice.”
Stevens’ attention to detail in offseason film work is already the stuff of legend in Beantown. Add to that another 100 games’ worth of regular season and playoffs that he’s pored over, obsessively.
“That means you’ve watched five times as many games, six times that many games over the course of the year, all over the league,” Stevens said last week. “You’re studying. All you’re doing is you’re stealing from everybody else and seeing what might work in certain situations. Sometimes it works; sometimes it doesn’t.”
"I’ve learned something from every film I’ve watched. And here, it feels like you’re getting your PhD every time you break down the tape."
The self-deprecation that Stevens utilizes when asked about anything he does to make the Celtics better is like his theme music -- always present, familiar, comforting. You expect to hear “aw, shucks” from him before nearly every sentence.
“Literally, I’ve stolen from everybody,” Stevens said. “I said this when I was coaching in college, and especially when you become responsible for doing some of that stuff. I’ve learned something from every film I’ve watched. And here, it feels like you’re getting your PhD every time you break down the tape.”
But, make no mistake. He’s quickly joined the elite coaches at designing ATOs and sideline out of bounds plays -- “SLOBs,” in NBA parlance. While Cleveland dispatched Boston in five games, Stevens had “kind of been killing us on ATOs,” James said during the series.
Stevens’ brilliance was on display in Game 3, when he drew up three ATOs in the final minutes that all produced great looks for the Celtics -- an isolation for Al Horford in the paint (after Celtics guard Marcus Smart, who’d already hit seven 3-pointers in the game, came off a pindown that drew the Cavs’ attention), a corner 3-pointer for Jonas Jerebko off of an Avery Bradley drive (Jerebko’s foot stepped on the line, though, making it a two), and the game-winning wing 3-pointer for Bradley off of a cut by Jae Crowder that drew two Cavaliers defenders.
And those successes came with Boston’s premier fourth-quarter performer-- All-Star guard Isaiah Thomas, who led the league in fourth-quarter scoring this season – unavailable due to injury. Stevens nonetheless drew up plays that led to seven points in the final minute of a game that Boston had to have to survive.
“When Brad drew it up, he was already telling us, ‘this is what we’re going to do,’” Smart said. “’Marcus, you come get the ball. We’re going to send Jae off. They’re going to switch it. Both of them are going to go with you, Jae. Avery, pop back and knock it down.’ It’s crazy.”
What was even more impressive was that that set was not something the Celtics had worked on for a while. Stevens says his team is good “off the board,” meaning recalling plays that they haven’t run in games for weeks, sometimes months. But to have the faith that his guys would run it correctly in such a high-pressure environment in the playoffs is part of the buy-in between coach and players that bonds a team together.
“The defense didn’t know it was coming,” Horford said, “and we didn’t really know it was coming until he drew it up. A lot of times we’ll go through stuff in shootaround for plays at the end of the game. (But) he didn’t draw those then. He just kind of came up with it on the fly.”
That’s not that unusual. Coaches tweak plays all the time; they have players practice things they’re just thinking about, even if -- maybe especially if -- they don’t work on the court. They then put them in a drawer for weeks, adding something here, taking something out there. Then, out of the blue, out they come. It looks similar, but it’s a little different.
“They think in terms of angles and fundamentals, not necessarily personnel,” Jones said. “When you look it that way, they’re kind of calculated, almost mathematical -- if I set a guy at this angle, and he sets at this level, at this time and this tempo and this speed, you have no choice to fall behind…it’s chess, amplified -- in a matter of seconds. Where these guys not only can draw it up, but communicate it, and translate it for guys.”
The Finals between Golden State and Cleveland will feature teams that are especially adept at ATOs and SLOBs to get their best players the ball when it counts most. And they’ve mastered the most important part of any ATO -- one that everyone other than coaches take for granted.
“As Chuck always used to say,” Carlisle said, “you better get the ball inbounds.”
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