It should be no surprise that even early in his NBA head coaching career, Brett Brown has a firm grasp of the “ATO.” After all, he spent over a decade learning under one of the genre’s masters, Gregg Popovich.
ATO is an acronym that stands for “after timeout,” and it describes offensive plays that take place in the frontcourt, you guessed it, directly after a timeout. The stoppage allows coaches to draw up special (often intricate) plays for their teams to execute from the dead ball situation directly out of the timeout.
Victories have been few and far between for the Sixers over the past couple of weeks, but their last two wins have both featured a critical crunch-time ATO that Brown ran to free Thaddeus Young for a three-pointer.
1st Play: Sixers 92, Bobcats 92, 0:15 4Q
After Charlotte’s Kemba Walker tied the game at 92, Brown couldn’t run a quick-hitter out of the timeout. Above all, the Sixers needed to run the clock down. If they take the last shot of regulation, the worst-case scenario is overtime.
The plan is for James Anderson and Evan Turner to eventually clear out to the corners, with Michael Carter-Williams initiating the offense from up top. Young will be stationed around the top of the key. They’re going to run a simple pick-and-pop.
Coaches too often call isolations for a last possession-type situation, but there’s a reason why: Isolations are a low-risk proposition, and some coaches would rather live with any shot than increase the chance of a turnover at all.
Brown takes the middle road here. A high ball screen doesn’t have the stagnancy of an isolation, but it still provides the ball-handler with enough space to be pretty careful with the basketball.
On this particular play, Walker, Carter-Williams’ defender, goes under on Young’s screen. Josh McRoberts, Young’s defender, sticks with Carter-Williams until Walker can recover (Tom Izzo calls this type of soft hedge a “feather”).
Brown probably noticed how out of sync they were defending previous ball screens. If Walker goes under the initial screen, McRoberts probably has to hedge out harder on Carter-Williams. If McRoberts “feathers” on Carter-Williams, Walker probably has to go over. Whoever was wrong, the two defenders weren’t on the same page.
Young made them pay. A split second of hesitation from both defenders was all he needed to pop out to the three-point line and let it fly. Ironically, Carter-Williams started his drive way too early, giving the Bobcats a chance to tie the game in the process. That’s expected of a rookie who is learning on the job, I guess.
2nd Play: Sixers 102, Knicks 100, 2:00 4Q
With the Sixers in dire need of a basket after the Knicks had reeled off four straight points, this is a spot where Brown can be creative. Carter-Williams starts the play by zipper-cutting up the lane and slightly toward the ball.
Once Carter-Williams, receives the pass, Turner steps inbounds and uses Lavoy Allen’s diagonal down screen to cut to the top of the key. Next, Carter-Williams enters the ball to Allen in the post.
The entry pass to Allen is a subtle, but extremely important element of this play. When Young sets a back screen for Turner, Carmelo Anthony is suddenly on high alert over Allen potentially feeding Turner for an easy layup. That’s why he calls for the switch with Iman Shumpert.
The Knicks have struggled with defensive switches all season, so Shumpert initially wants to stay with Turner. If I were to bet, Brown wanted to force Anthony to properly communicate how to defend the back screen. He didn’t.
Again, that split second of confusion is all Young needed to step behind the arc and knock down a dagger three-pointer. The Knicks were never able to make it a one-possession game again.
So, there you have to it: Two ATOs, and two Thaddeus Young three-pointers. It will be interesting to track Brown’s success in these situations as the team’s talent gradually improves. He’s already off to a pretty good start.
Rich Hofmann Jr. can be contacted @rich_hofmann.