In a league that has prioritized pace-and-space, where players are empowered to make decisions on their own, ATO's, or after timeout plays, have become the place where coaches can show off their hoops IQ. It's the one aspect of the game that has gone untouched by this revolution, free from the daily criticisms of midrange jumpers and highly-structured sets. To put it simply: coaches can sit down, draw up a play, and coach.
Why is an ATO so important? It's an opportunity to swing the momentum of the game in your favor, to stop an opponents' 10-0 run or at the very least cool them off by the sheer nature of stopping live game action. It's a way of jumpstarting your offense or providing your team with a set play, complete with counters and secondary actions, to get your team a bucket in the late stages of a game. In the NBA, each team is entitled to one 20-second timeout per half and six regular timeouts per game. That's a total of seven possessions in the game, more than enough to swing the outcome of a game.
For coaches, this is where their bread gets buttered. Can they draw up a quick-hitter down three and force the opposition to make their free throws? Do they have counters built in if the defense decides to switch? And what if they're down three with only a couple of ticks left on the game clock? Moreover, which set of lineups work in certain situations and which players need to be the screeners, ball handlers, or spot-up shooters?
These are all situations Randy Wittman has excelled in, not only this season, but for the better part of his coaching tenure in Washington. Let's take a closer look at some of his ATO plays this season:
October 9 vs. New York - 4:54 first quarter
We pick this up in the preseason against the Knicks. Down one, Wittman draws up what looks like is going to be a double pindown screen for Otto Porter into a screen-the-screener play to Bradley Beal for three. But watch the play more closely. as Otto rubs off Beal's initial screen, Bradley waits and sets up as if he's about to take the pindown from Kris Humphries instead.
Otto will turn right back around and nail Vujacic with a cross-screen, enough to get him off Beal's tail. But give Beal credit for setting his man up well, he jukes his move toward Humphries before cutting baseline. And if the Knicks had switched and taken away Wall's first pass? No matter, he had Otto coming off the weak-side pindown for an open jumper.
October 28 at Orlando - 0:37 fourth quarter
Wittman has used this Hammer set fairly often over the past three seasons to accentuate Wall's crosscourt passing. It stars off with Otto screening for Beal, who will clear to the corner, and immediately turning to screen for Wall, who will get the inbounds and curl towards the baseline. That curl is hugely important because it forces one of the Magic big men -- in this case Tobias Harris -- to step up and show on Wall, freeing Otto to run to the corner unimpeded. With just one defender on the weakside, all Gortat has to do is screen off his man and the Wizards get a great look at a corner three.
But what's even more important is the amount of time on the game clock, and how quickly it took for this play to develop. All of five seconds were shaven off the clock, allowing Washington to work the two-for-one to set up this:
October 28 at Orlando - 0:12 fourth quarter
Three things are great about this:
- Wittman put the ball in the hands of his best player and let him attack the slowest defender in space.
- They again ran their Hammer set, this time with Otto screening for Beal in the left corner. Tobias Harris looks like he's stuck in quicksand, he knows Beal is running free in the corner after Oladipo got screened off, but he also see's John Wall coming full speed toward the basket.
- The Wizards went early. Normally in this situation you'd want Wall milking the clock as much as possible, but they know Vucevic won't be in prime rebounding position after taking on the ball handler. If Wall misses to the right, poor Mario Hezonja would have the tall task of boxing out Marcin Gortat, who's swooping in for the offense rebound. I'll let you decide who that favors.
November 4 vs. Spurs - 3:50 first quarter
Another staple of the Wizards offense dating back to last year. After entering the ball to Nene in the post, Otto will look as if he's cutting through the middle of the floor before taking the downscreen from Drew Gooden. It nets a midrange shot, which you can argue could easily have been a three, but what I like is that it eases the offense back into a rhythm with Wall off the floor. Nothing flashy here, but Wittman pushed the right buttons.
November 4th vs. Spurs - 0:07 fourth quarter
And finally, the game-winner from last night. There was nothing complex about this, and that's the beauty of it all. Wizards start out in their sideline out of bounds alignment, with Gortat screening for Wall, Dudley inbounding, and their two wings waiting on the baseline. As Dudley enters the ball in, he'll station himself on the wing, Porter will clear out to the weakside corner, while Beal jets off the Gortat downscreen. But instead of popping out to the three, Beal runs straight to the ball and sets a brush screen before flaring out.
Did Wittman know they were going to switch? If so, they did a brilliant job of disguising what they truly wanted to run by running a decoy screen and roll between Wall and Gortat, keeping the Spurs hesitant to send any help Beal's way.
Another brilliant set that took very little time to complete.
This 3-1 start to the season amid their frontcourt struggles could not have been possible without some of the plays that were highlighted above. That's a testament to not only their backcourt, but their head coach as well.