Celtics Get Ahead of the Curve with ATOs

WALTHAM, Mass. – If practice makes perfect, the Boston Celtics might be the top after-timeout team in the league once Opening Night arrives on October 30.

It’s no secret that every NBA team has been working on end-of-game situations throughout the preseason. The Celtics, however, have gotten more practice than all of them.

On top of actual practice, Boston has already played three exhibition games that have gone down to the wire. Those contests provided the Celtics with live, unscripted opportunities to work on their after-timeout (ATO) execution.

That experience is priceless, regardless of the outcome. Boston’s close games helped the team improve despite the fact that it lost on all three occasions.

“They’re important,” Courtney Lee said of ATOs. “You’ve seen us work on a couple here today. The last couple games we lost by two points. We had a chance to win or tie the game and we came up short, so practicing them is very important.”

Lee also made sure to point out that his team was in great position to win all three of its close games this preseason. The Celtics battled down to the final seconds of each contest and had legitimate looks at the basket to tie or win them in regulation.

First, Chris Babb had his game-winning shot attempt blocked with 1.0 second remaining after an epic comeback against the Knicks on October 9. Next, Lee himself missed a baseline jumper that would have sent Tuesday’s game against the Nets into overtime. Most recently, Jordan Crawford and Jared Sullinger each missed shots in the final five seconds of Wednesday’s 99-97 loss to Toronto.

Boston lost those three contests by a total of five points. Agonizing as that may sound, the C’s were happy to gain the experience. They now have proof that their rookie head coach, Brad Stevens, is capable of designing end-of-game plays that will put them in position to win.

“It’s just about drawing up plays and putting people in the right positions to succeed,” said Lee, “and he’s doing a good job of that.”

While the players gave kudos to their coach, Stevens felt the need to return the favor. He acknowledged that he wouldn’t have been in position to draw up those end-of-game plays had his team not fought to the final whistle.

“The nice part is in a couple of games where it looked like we were down and out, somehow we had a chance to win at the end and that’s a good character trait,” Stevens said. “Now we’ve got to shore it up so we don’t get down so much.”

The only way to shore something up is to practice it as much as possible. That’s why Boston was right back on the court Friday afternoon, closing out practice with a string of after-timeout simulations.

Today’s practice finale featured the white team versus the green team, with Stevens coaching the defensive squad and assistant coach Jay Larranaga running the offense. The offensive team would huddle up, process a play that was drawn on the clipboard, and then put it into action on the court.

It may sound mundane to proceed through such an exercise over and over, but this is what it takes to succeed in crunch time. Execution is unattainable without the proper preparation. That’s why Stevens and his players are putting in the time right now.

“Coach Stevens has really been trying to get us to [execute] well in practice,” said rookie point guard Phil Pressey. “I think the more we work on it and the more we get comfortable with what we implement, the better we’re going to become.”

And that’s exactly why the C’s are on their way to becoming great at executing after-timeout plays. They and the rest of the league are simulating these plays in practice, but Boston’s live experience during the preseason might give it the upper hand come Opening Night.