How After Timeout plays shifted the NBA Finals and the future of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
By now, the NBA Finals has been dissected in a variety of ways—the KD factor, Rihanna’s bow to The King, the Kardashian curse, Deron Williams playing basketball like Carlton Banks, etc. Throughout the series, I was more interested in the minutiae because, like other coaches also know, when you have the lesser talented team you must find ways to win in the margins. The Cleveland Cavaliers were not going to out-talent the Golden State Warriors to a series victory. Instead, Coach Lue and company needed to find resounding wins in the margins.
After Timeout situations, or ATOs, are perfect opportunities to momentarily use nuanced stratagem or outright chicanery to overcome an opponent’s superior talent. The controlled timeout environment allows coaches to set up their offense and prepare players to execute to the best of their ability, albeit against an equally prepared set defense.
Outside of coaching circles, ATO effectiveness often goes overlooked. In fact, there isn't a place that keeps detailed ATO stats for public consumption. Nevertheless, when paying attention to these situations, the importance of ATOs is clear. Beyond simply putting points on the scoreboard, ATOs can be used to stop runs, stem the tide of a game, get certain players going, and demoralize an opponent.
For Coach Tyronn Lue and the Cavs, it was critical to maximize their ATO opportunities while simultaneously limiting the Warriors (who excel after timeouts in their own right). Considering the Warriors superior talent level, the Cavs needed to have an overwhelming win in this area to help overcome some of the other areas of the game where they were disadvantaged. Unfortunately, the Cavs did not claim a resounding ATO victory. They didn’t claim a victory at all, being outscored by 22 points after timeouts over the course of the Finals.
If the Cavs would’ve flipped the ATO advantage in their favor and found themselves with a 22 point advantage, would they have won another ring? It’s impossible to know. The overall point, however, still stands – capitalizing in this seemingly small area of the game would’ve improved Cleveland’s chance to win unequivocally. And had the Cavs afforded themselves this extra opportunity to win, who knows what could happen when you have the best player in the world continuing to produce historic Finals numbers.
Now here we sit nearly two months removed from the beginning of the NBA finals. Golden State has paraded through Oakland. General Manager David Griffin has been fired. Chauncey Billups would rather work with Michelle Beadle than be the Cavs GM. Kyrie has asked to be traded. LeBron is presumed to be counting down the days until he can go to LA. Carmelo Anthony refuses to entertain the idea of putting on a Cavs jersey. If the Cavs could go back and find a way to win in the margins, would they have actually been finding a way to avoid all of these wholesale losses?
Best ATOs: Golden State
These two plays typify the Golden State Warriors philosophy because there is excellent movement, screening, and all players are given the opportunity to make plays. Both plays end with a bench player getting an easy shot around the rim. One of the things that stood out over the course of the series was the frequency with which the Warriors would use an ATO to get a shot for someone not named Curry, Durant, or Thompson. Using ATOs to get non-stars shot attempts is a savvy way to keep the entire team engaged at both ends of the floor.
Best ATOs: Cleveland
Although excellently designed, these plays are representative of one of the problems with Cleveland's after timeout sets. Both plays are designed to feature the Cavs best players: LeBron, Kyrie, and K-Love. There's certainly nothing wrong with getting the ball to your best players as often as possible, but the heavy reliance on their stars compounded an issue for Cleveland. Throughout the series, the Cavs struggled to get any production from their bench or supporting cast. What better scenario than a carefully crafted ATO to give your struggling fringe players some confidence and energy?