Why NBA Playcalling Matters: A Defensive Masterclass in Foiling ATO’s

Earlier this week, we published a piece on the surprising analytic findings surrounding after timeout (ATO) situations.

The data points show a slight shift favoring the defenses in these situations, despite the offense having the opportunity to reset in a specific and patterned manner under the coach’s direction. Thus, it’s more difficult to score after a timeout than it is during a regular half-court set.

Why is that? Naturally, there’s a convenient and over-arching point: it’s harder to score on a set defense.


At no point will a defense be more set than after a long stoppage like a timeout. Perhaps we shouldn’t over-think the logic behind this trend any more than that. It’s a slight enough shift that the data doesn’t fluctuate too wildly.

But what if there’s something else at play here beyond the surface? What if there was a way that coaches were executing their defensive coverages in these ATO situations that can directly lead to success?

Despite the obvious explanations holding merit, I tend to have a lot of faith in coaches having a massive impact with how timeouts are defended. At the tail end of the first article, we saw a disturbing trend: Coaches who frequently play a zone out of timeouts get scored on most.

That’s not because zone is inferior; the data proves that it isn’t. Instead, it’s proof that coaches are great with their tactics on offense when they know exactly what to expect from the opponent.

The opposite then must be true as well: The most well-scouted and unpredictable defenses are ones that have the most success. Let’s focus on two teams that do this incredibly well, albeit via different tactics, and swing the possession back in their favor during ATOs.


May 13, 2018; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens call a play in front of guard Jaylen Brown (7) against the Cleveland Cavaliers during the third quarter of the Eastern conference finals of the 2018 NBA Playoffs at TD Garden. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

One way to disrupt an opponent is to literally not be in the defense they expect. Most teams play man-to-man, and do so at a regular and predictable clip. When an NBA head coach goes into the huddle and draws up a play, he envisions what type of defense it will work against. Most times, he’s thinking about man.

The easiest and most overt way to thwart that play is to literally not be in the expected type of defense. It sounds so simple and elementary, but changing defenses out of a timeout is not as common as you would think.

The master is Boston Celtics head coach Brad Stevens, who uses a unique Diamond zone to mess up opponents and cause them to veer from the gameplan. Watch this possession against the Miami Heat and you’ll understand there’s no way this is what the Heat wanted to run out of the timeout:

Stevens simply understands when to use the tactic.

Do it every time the opponent has a sideline inbound out of a timeout and it becomes predictable. Instead, throw it as a changeup pitch to shift the momentum back in the Celts’ favor.

Boston only deploys this tactic in certain situations out of timeouts, depending on time and score:

High school and college coaches know this tactic well.

In an NBA game long-resilient to zone usage, the introduction of the change-of-pace zone has been heralded. As we learned in the prior piece about ATO analytics, teams that utilize the zone predictably out of timeouts are towards the bottom in defensive efficiency. If an offense knows coming out of the timeout that they will face said zone, it provides that coach an opportunity to set the play designed to thwart it.

Stevens doesn’t tip his hand frequently, and the Celtics use their zone less than 2 percent of the time, according to Synergy. It’s a true change-of-pace trump card that opponents cannot anticipate.

Scouting, Recognition and the Utah Jazz

Feb 24, 2017; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) talks with head coach Quin Snyder after being called for a technical foul during the third quarter against the Milwaukee Bucks at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

If a team is to stay in man-to-man out of the timeout, they have to rely heavily on their scouting department and coaching staff to correctly recognize and then communicate the action.

This process begins long before the game. Advance scouts travel around weeks before a contest and watch for set plays and calls. They work with the video coordinators to compile clips of those sets and communicate to the coaching staff the frequency and success of these plays.

From there, the head coach decides what should go in the scouting report, what they should show and how much time to spend in a practice or walk-through while setting how to defend the individual actions.

Think of ATO situations like special teams in football.

Spend very little time on them and they can become a noticeable weakness. Spend a great deal of time on them and they can be the difference between wins and losses. Basketball has several special teams situations, including inbounds plays, free throw box-outs, press offense and after timeout or end-game sets.

Last year, no team was statistically better at defending in the first two possessions out of a timeout than the Utah Jazz. Their coaching staff built a high-level defense around Rudy Gobert but did not rest on his laurels. Dive into the way they defend ATO plays and there’s a great deal of praise that should be heaped on the Jazz coaching staff for their attention to detail as well as the players for their execution.

To understand what the coaches are seeing, pay attention to the patterned movement of this Atlanta Hawks play, a common lob set they ran out of timeouts or dead balls:

It’s a nice design and a play that has stolen many free looks for Atlanta. For a young team like theirs, the playbook was not too deep in Lloyd Pierce’s first season. He’d run the same few sets repeatedly, and the Jazz keyed in on this. While run with many slight wrinkles, the end result was the same: a cut up the middle of the floor, fake a ball screen, then slice around a big at the elbow for an alley-oop.

The Jazz snuffed it out from a timeout, and one of their assistants who was responsible for assisting with the scouting report was able to help steal the possession for Utah:

Coaching matters. The Jazz foiled other plays from the Hawks in their meetings, executing coverage and going over their gameplan to understand how they wanted to defend these actions. In double ball screens, the Jazz wanted to ice or down them, pushing the ball handler to the sideline. That would prevent him from using the ball screen and getting to the dangerous action that can be difficult to navigate⁠—especially with shooters like Trae Young or Kevin Huerter.

Credit the Jazz, especially Ricky Rubio, for executing the coverage they clearly practiced:

The Sacramento Kings were foiled in one of their frequent sets: a dribble weave leading into a Spain PNR.

Once again, one of the Jazz assistants popped up and identified the set, which triggered the team to know a blitz on the ball screen was coming:

Sometimes an adjustment to coverage isn’t needed. Knowledge of the action and an understanding of exactly what is going to happen on a set can be enough for players to defend effectively. When the Jazz execute from a team standpoint and prevent a team from scoring, they are allowed to be more aggressive once the play breaks down.

Part of that comes from earning the right; part is due to having a monster like Rudy Gobert who will clean up those aggressive mistakes on the back-line.

Here’s one such example against the Phoenix Suns. Coach Igor Kokoskov would call this back screen set for DeAndre Ayton, with Devin Booker setting the screen. If no lob occurred, the Suns would just default to hitting Booker and letting him isolate at the elbow or play in a two-man game with Ayton on that side of the floor.

By snuffing out the back screen and making the Suns uncomfortable enough with ball pressure, the Jazz forced a turnover and let Joe Ingles, Booker’s defender, be aggressive in passing lanes:

The hero of the plays are unheralded ones that allow Ingles to be aggressive: Derrick Favors gives a subtle step to the rim that disincentivizes the lob pass by showing he knows it is coming. Rubio’s gnat-like pressure on Tyler Johnson makes him want to give up the rock. Johnson is looking to pass quickly, and due to Rubio’s intensity on the ball, he doesn’t see Ingles streaking up for the steal.

Rubio’s arms go up as the back screen occurs as well, which help prevent the lob pass if Favors doesn’t do his job.

The Jazz clearly practiced this set and went over its impact if run correctly. Sure, Rubio jumps high-side of Johnson to push him up towards half-court for his catch, but they made relatively few adjustments schematically.

On March 18th, the Jazz played the Washington Wizards in their first meeting of the season. By that point, the Wizards were playing solely around Bradley Beal and constructing their offense around getting him free.

Many teams would guard Beal tightly, even denying him on the perimeter, due to the lack of other scoring options. As such, Wizards coach Scott Brooks installed a counter to their “21” or Pistol series that would serve as a quick pressure-release for Beal, and they ran it frequently out of timeouts.

It looked something like this:

Washington ran the set to open the game against Utah and got a clean look from three. The Wizards’ frontcourt at the time was comprised of all stretch bigs: Bobby Portis, Thomas Bryant and Jeff Green. The pick-and-pop of this set was just as important as the backdoor to Beal, where Gobert would have to help and then his man would be open for three.

To protect Gobert and shut down Beal, the Jazz adjusted before their second meeting just eleven days later. The Jazz knew they wanted to play Beal aggressively and not let him get going, so they continued to press up and deny him.

Instead of having his man apply more or less pressure, they simply went over the play with their guys.

The difference here: Jae Crowder not allowing his man to catch it on the flash. Without said catch, there would be no backdoor to Beal and no risk of the pick-and-pop:

The Jazz won this game by four. Swing this possession the other way and the game may have ended up differently. That victory helped the Jazz win 50 games, putting them atop the Oklahoma City Thunder in the standings.

Think this stuff matters?

While the first article in this series appeared pessimistic towards the value of offensive focus during timeouts, those play calls and attention to details matter immensely.

Where the real value comes from is on the defense and scouting side, of understanding what is coming and how to prepare. Think of ATO situations containing two possessions: one offense and one defense for each team. If a team is on offense first, their emphasis in the huddle will be on that offensive possession. A failure to score could lead to transition or open-flowing offense without a play call, rendering any emphasis on the defense moot.

For the team on defense first, it is a great opportunity to understand what is coming and find a way to get to the open floor.

ATO situations and study matters, particularly to defensive adjustments and winning mini-battles within the game. The teams that prepare most effectively for those battles are ones that should be lauded for their efforts: They find ways to win games for their teams.


Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are courtesy of NBA.com stats, basketball-reference or Synergy Sports Tech, and are current as of September 5, 2019.