There is a coaching axiom that if a play is successful, you should run it over and over again until the defense proves they can stop it. Beat them over the head with your success.
But then, when the defense finally adjusts, the best coaches run the same set again with a different action or a slight adjustment off the original action.
I'm not sure if analytics or even advanced scouting confirms or debunks this coaching philosophy, but the ability to recall and spin multiple looks out of a coach's data center is a valuable skill. It's one that Mike D'Antoni does as well as any coach in the NBA.
Appropriate disclaimer: I am horribly biased on this subject.
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It is a bit unusual that the worst team in the Western Conference would be featured two weeks in a row as the "ATO of the Week." However, this worst team is also tanking without even knowing it or playing like it. The Lakers work hard and compete. They don't have the horses to stay in every game, but their collection of castoffs, underachievers and veterans on minimum contracts continue to stay close most of the time.
And if the Lakers are close in the last minute, you're going to see some of the most creative ATOs coming out of D'Antoni data center. Here's a series of examples from two recent games.
We'll start in Portland, where the Lakers stunned the Blazers on Monday. After playing some outstanding individual half-court defense, newest Laker Kent Bazemore grabs a long rebound and starts streaking down the court, game-winning glory just 12 seconds away. The former Warrior hits the three-point line in full stride and attempts to split two Blazers by executing the longest Euro Step in the history of the league. The ball squirts out of his hands and is ruled Portland's ball.
Aaah, wait one second, Pacific Northwest hipsters. It might not be the Blazer's ball after all. Time for a video review. And after the normal 20-minute process, the call on the floor is reversed and the ball is awarded to the Lakers.
During the interminable delay, D'Antoni is able to ruminate on exactly what ATO the Lakers should run. (Although, I guess it is not technically an after-timeout play as much as it was an after-lengthy-video-review play).
Los Angeles breaks out of its free timeout, and the players begin assembling in the same set-up they successfully ran against Memphis on three occasions during the previous week. My guess -- and it's just an educated guess -- is that Portland may have scouted this ATO.
Bazemore takes the ball out on the sideline. Not at the three-point line hash mark, but further down the key, approximately where the ball was knocked out. This makes the passing angles a little more difficult, but it is definitely preferable to taking it out on the baseline. He is covered length on length by Nicolas Batum. The rest of the Lakers set up in a slightly uneven line just outside the center jump circle. Like an elementary school fire drill lineup, the Lakers go in descending order of height: Pau Gasol (covered by Robin Lopez), Wesley Johnson (marked by LaMarcus Aldridge), Jodie Meeks (defended by Wes Matthews) and Jordan Farmar (checked by Damian Lilliard).
D'Antoni has used this "marching line close to center configuration" before, and it's confusing for the defense. How high up the court do you pick up your man? The Lakers are tightly packed together, so how do you switch screens? With all of the different options available, what does the defense try to take away first?
As the ball is handed off to Bazemore, the four Lakers begin slowly walking together toward the three-point line like the four-wide walking camera shot in "Swingers." Which, of course, was an homage to the opening shot in "Reservoir Dogs" ... which was an indirect tribute to Martin Scorsese's "Goodfellas." It always relates back to Hollywood for the Lakers.
After a slow step or two, Meeks plants and veers hard to his left. He cuts between Gasol and Johnson, who have provided him a little screen door for use. Matthews is solidly on Meeks' hip as he moves quickly to the left corner. After Meeks splits the Lakers' big men, Farmar, who has taken an extra step or two toward the basket, turns back and sets a solid back screen on Aldridge to free Johnson.
At this point, Damian Lilliard remains relatively attached to Farmar. He doesn't step into Johnson's path and bump him coming off the screen, which proves to be a mistake. The fear of a free Farmar has frozen the Rookie of the Year.
Bazemore lofts a perfect lob pass, and the former No. 4 pick rises and does an outstanding job guiding the ball into the hoop. Despite no help from Lillard, Aldridge actually did a good job staying with Johnson and only misses the lob pass by a couple of inches. But that's just enough that Johnson is able to complete the play to put Los Angeles up by one point.
Ironically, Farmar was option 1A on this ATO. The lob pass from Bazemore to Johnson was the "only if it's there" trigger. As Johnson is freed to go back door to the hoop, Gasol is angling himself to set a second screen for the original screener, Farmar, to pop open above the three-point line.
This is where D'Antoni's quick-thinking skills really come into play. That Gasol screen for the point guard is the same action that the Lakers successfully ran five days earlier against the Memphis Grizzlies.
The Lakers set up the exact same structure in a situation when they trailed by eight points. The Lakers still stroll forward to the three-point line. Meeks still cuts hard between Johnson and Gasol. Farmar still sets a solid back screen for Johnson. Gasol is still pinned down for Farmar.
In this case, however, Mike Conley recognizes the back screen and potential lob toward the basket and lingers an extra second to help.
This provides just enough separation that he loses Farmar popping off Gasol's screen. To complicate matters, Conley also goes under the screen and therefore is closing out on Farmar's non-shooting hand. Boom. Three-point field goal, Jordan Farmar.
On the very next play, the Lakers went with the same basic look again, except with Meeks and Farmar exchanging spots on the walking line. Here's the result:
This time, instead of a sharp cut by the inside guard and a series of screens, the Lakers' bigs spring Farmer with what amounts to a football offensive line block. Conley, anticipating a similar action to the previous play, gets caught again behind the screen.
Farmar therefore comes back off a Gasol and Johnson double screen (mainly off of Johnson's pick) for a deep catch-and-shoot three. Swish.
These plays surely had an effect on Robin Lopez, who must have watched the film. Let's go back to the Blazers example. As Gasol screens down for Farmar, Ro-Lo is getting ready to show hard on the Lakers' guard.
But as he recovers back to see the lob being successfully completed by Johnson, the Stanford grad sinks to the floor in emotional agony. Same Lakers' set, very different action. Game. Set. Match.
This is the genius of D'Antoni and other great ATO coaches. In two different games, LA executed multiple actions from the same formation, keeping the defense guessing. Beat them over the head with your ATO success, Mike. This is definitely a season of small victories for your Lakers.
If you have an ATO to suggest, please tweet or email me with #ebeATO